Art museums have been in a state of evolution for years, redefining their missions and benefits to the communities they serve. They have invested a lot of time and money into research to learn how to stay relevant. As a result, we are now starting to see significant changes to how museums engage with their audiences through their exhibitions and social events. Since both museums and commercial fine-art galleries are striving to attract similar patrons, galleries can look to museums to learn about how to adapt for the future.
Challenges Faced by Museums and Art Galleries
Today’s art museum has moved away from solely being the voice of authority and a place to preserve cultural treasures. Museums are finding new ways to connect with the public’s needs in this new socially connected, Internet-driven information age. More than ever museum visitors want to be engaged and participate in unique experiences with the art and the museum itself. Brick and mortar gallery businesses want to generate foot traffic and provide the experience of seeing art in person.
Some of the key challenges art museums (and galleries) face:
- Reinventing their value within the community as they compete for people’s time, attention, and money in today’s world of seemingly endless choices.
- Engaging with visitors in a way that turns them from one-time visitors to members who visit frequently.
- Creating collaboration and dialogue between the museum and visitors to meet the needs of how people prefer to learn and participate in the 21st century.
- Reaching a broader audience by overcoming the stigma that museums are only for intellectuals or schoolchildren.
- Using partnerships, both locally and other markets, to extend their brand reach and resources.
Museum Evolution and Art Gallery Strategy
Exhibition Design: One of the ways museums are addressing these challenges is by changing how they design their exhibitions, both temporary and permanent. Specifically, temporary exhibitions are being designed around an overarching theme or story that is connected to the show as a whole. They are doing a better job of telling an interesting story through the exhibition. Permanent collections are also being reconfigured on a regular basis to keep them fresh.
Gallery Takeaway: Your obligation to your artists to exhibit their work may provide some constrains, but plan to curate three or four exhibitions a year with the overall story in mind that prospects can relate to directly. Use these gallery exhibitions as an opportunity to create a fresh buzz about your gallery and artists. Many galleries are already enlisting the help of guest curators.
Education & Experience: Museums are providing more supporting information within exhibits to help viewers better understand the shows and enable them to form their own interpretations. Such initiatives include offering more comprehensive information throughout an exhibition or collection, better utilizing docents, and placing video or interactive kiosks in different locations throughout the exhibition and hosting a greater variety of events centered around the exhibition – some educational, some social.
Gallery Takeaway: Offer sales sheets for each art object next to the work that provides a story about that specific piece. This could be what inspired the artist to create a piece or detailed information about the subject. Doing this will encourage viewer to linger longer and consider a piece further. It also helps them connect with a piece if a gallery staff member is not there to walk a visitor through each piece. Study the different ways museums do this to find what would work well for your gallery.
Create several, uniquely different events around the show to attract a wider variety of audiences. Carefully plan the marketing to get the word out about both the events and story your show tells well in advance of opening night.
Feedback to Drive Change: Museum have accumulated a lot of data from visitor feedback over the years about the experience they want to have in a museum. That data has been analyzed and put into action for change. As a result, museums are giving visitors more opportunities to discuss and discover their own meaning about an exhibition through enhanced member groups, online via social media, surveys, and on the museum website.
Gallery Takeaway: Send brief surveys on a regular basis to the different segments of your mailing lists asking for feedback about your gallery events, the information you routinely provide, and your artist exhibitions. If gallery foot traffic has decreased and you don’t know what your audience wants anymore, – ask. You could also post surveys on your gallery website and social media.
Short, simple surveys can provide valuable information and are easy and free to send. It will take some time to see big trends that could help you determine what your art gallery could change to have a greater impact on foot traffic, referrals and of course – sales.
Variety of Experiences: Museums are working hard to find the right mix of educational and social components as part of the exhibition experience. Many now offer regularly scheduled social events, such as happy hours, lecture series or concerts. This consistency gives patrons a reason to return often for a variety of different experiences.
Gallery Takeaway: Offer multiple events around certain shows, such as lectures, demonstrations, studio tours, and private viewings for groups and parties. This helps to create a buzz and get more people through the door beyond opening night. Events do not need to require additional budget, simply a variety of ways to see and learn about an exhibition that would appeal to different kinds of collectors and prospects. One size fits all openings doesn’t necessarily work anymore.
Offer two or three events in the gallery each year that are just for fun and have no sales component. You’ll be surprised by how many people will come through your door who would not have otherwise done so. Ideas might include a summer BBQ, decorating Easter eggs with kids, Yoga classes, food truck night or listening to a concert in the gallery. Sell tickets to help cover the costs. These events may be the perfect opportunity to partner with other businesses with a like-minded client base.
Marketing: Museums are doing very good job of marketing their exhibitions and events to create a buzz far in advance. They start to promote their shows early and consistently build the excitement up to the opening or event date. When people visit a museum, it is hard to leave without learning what else they could do or see in the next three or four months. This helps people get excited to visit again and make plans or want to connect with the museum to get reminders about future fun.
Gallery Takeaway: Small to mid-sized galleries rarely promote anything going on in the gallery more than a month out. Your gallery patrons are bombarded with information and options for how to spend their time and money. It is critical to formulate a marketing calendar and plan that allows for promotion of future gallery attractions.
Promoting early and often is key. You cannot simply repost the who, what, when and where of an event. Build anticipation by trickling out new information to keep your message fresh and keep prospects attention.
All these tactics are helping to initiate a conversation, not only with the museum but also through increased word-of-mouth among the friends and colleagues of visitors. Museums have become more skilled at creating a buzz. They have also successfully created a feeling of participation and a more dynamic experience. This is helping to change perceptions toward museums as being exciting destinations to revisit. It is also helping to nurture an appreciation for art.
Both museums and commercial fine-art galleries share many of the same challenges and goals for the future. Both have had to rethink how they attract patrons with onsite offerings and through the Internet. Museums have already invested in research and are now putting their findings into action to stay relevant to both their membership base and their sources of financial support. As a gallery owner, it is worth taking a closer look at how museums are being run and how they are addressing their challenges. The inspiration you find there could help you step outside the white cube and change the perception of those affluent people in your area that may not have considered visiting an art gallery.
There are many opportunities for your fine-art gallery to educate and provide memorable experiences to a broader audience. By evolving, you will attract new art collectors as well as nurture the future of your business. Be creative about how you use those ideas. Sales will surely follow, just as museum membership is rising for those institutions that have been actively evolving.