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The Media LOVE the DMA’s Free Admissions But Miss the Long-Term Target

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The Dallas Museum of Art’s decision to start admitting visitors for free has been extolled by everyone — from an art critic in the London Guardian to Jackie Floyd, the Morning News columnist and self-described ‘art dunce.’ The new policy, beginning in January, is both a welcome, high-minded gift to Dallas and a logical, egalitarian reciprocation, an acknowledgement of the DMA’s status as a civic institution partly supported by our taxes.

But the institutional calculations beyond the headlines, beyond the free admission policy, have gotten far less attention (I’d say only Jamie Laughlin in Mixmaster has grasped some of the implications). Yet it’s these innovations that DMA director Maxwell Anderson said he hopes other museums will follow.

Free admission? Other museums already do that. The DMA’s innovations work like this: The museum plans on letting visitors become members, again for free, at the DMA’s own electronic kiosks in the lobby. This is unprecedented, yet it looks like no big deal: People will be joining at an entry-level membership, meaning the DMA is not offering the kinds of benefits one gets in a pay-for-it membership at other institutions (free passes to other venues, for one thing).

So why create such a small-potatoes stepping stone (we’re mashing metaphors here) – and go to all the trouble of installing kiosks?

Because the ultimate purpose is gathering audience data. Here’s Anderson in Mixmaster:

“We’ll be building an interactive map so that you’ll be able to see, in real time, what zip codes people are from,” says Anderson. Merge that with census data and you’ve got the socioeconomic status and background details of who’s taking advantage of the services being offered. And, more importantly, who isn’t.

“Pretty soon we’ll get a good picture of who’s not visiting us,” says Anderson, “which is what I really want to know.”

Perhaps only in the museum world would this kind of consumer data collection be revolutionary. Online, right now, your previous visits to commercial websites can be instantly reflected in the pop-up ads that appear when you visit other sites. They follow you around the web (unless you kill all your cookies regularly). These days, that’s our personalized, free-floating and immediate (one might say intrusive) level of consumer marketing. In effect, the DMA is trying to do a small-bore version of that, laying out not your travels and purchases around the web but how you interact with the museum’s departments and galleries.

(The other arts shouldn’t snicker at the slow uptake of market research. When William Goldman wrote The Season, his landmark 1969 study of Broadway, he had to hire a firm to do the first-ever, utterly basic survey of the theater audience. Broadway producers, hard-nosed businessmen, didn’t even know where their ticketbuyers came from.)

OK, so the DMA’s new approach will part the Red Sea of demographic ignorance and show us interactive maps to the Holy Land of market penetration. Now that Moses Anderson has started this, surely other institutions will follow, once he demonstrates that usable data will flow.

I mean, why wouldn’t any museum want to know more about its visitors?

To answer that, let’s turn to the conservative cultural journal, The New Criterion. In March this year, managing editor James Panero asked the question, “What’s a Museum?” In his essay-length answer, Panero quotes Philippe de Montebello, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to the effect that museums have gone from “being about something” to “being for somebody.” Meaning, they used to be about what’s best for the art works, conserving, studying, displaying; now they’re about serving the public, in whatever way that leads.

A new bottom-line sensibility that aimed to maximize revenues and attendance numbers cut against the founding principles of American museums. ‘When art museums rush to be commercial or seek to titillate their visitors we see a lamentable failure of nerve,’ says de Montebello, who went against the grain of this professionalized museum culture as director of the Metropolitan. ‘Our institutions — even though often founded by businessmen in league with civic officials — were not created to make money and vaunt civic identity.’

Certainly true. Specifically, Panero decries trends like blockbuster touring shows or diluting a museum’s central purpose by adding restaurants and performance halls. He especially denounces ‘deaccessioning,’ which involves jettisoning works from the permanent collection, selling them to pay bills or, worse, to buy newer, flashier artworks. All of these things are done in the name, Panero says, of “populist” crowd appeal and anti-elitism. (One gets the impression that museum attendance for Panero is an austere pilgrimage. It should involve hardship and self-denial somehow. Certainly not food.)

In this light, audience polling looks far too much like audience pandering. But with Anderson’s big push for market research — for granting free access so he can find out what the public wants — it seems paradoxical, to say the least, that he has also echoed de Montebello’s stern pronouncements against kowtowing to popular tastes. In his speech at the press conference announcing the new policies, Anderson took time out to hammer home the non-commercial nature of the art museum. He expressly removed it from the company of  ‘tourist attractions.’

His public declaration is worth noting. In 2008, the DMA agreed to host the for-profit King Tut exhibition – despite widespread concerns in the museum industry about the venture. Such concerns probably weren’t heard that much here because of the loud cheerleading of the City Council,  Mayor Tom Leppert and, initially, the Dallas Morning News. All this civic enthusiasm was generated by a show that, even going in, the museum knew would, at best, break even. So essentially, the DMA took one for the team (this was 2008, remember,  the red-ink depths of the recession and all). It proved itself a good neighbor by hosting a disappointing, flashy exhibition whose apparent purpose was to gin up tourist dollars for downtown hotels and restaurants.

Anderson seemed to be making it clear: That’s not happening again. In earlier interviews, he’d already indicated that he’s also not going to book something as fashion-trendy as the eye-opening and highly popular Jean-Paul Gaultier show earlier this year. (Hearts were surely broken over at FD Luxe with that news.)

In effect, Anderson has a foot in both camps. He is pushing the museum the farthest any museum has gone into sophisticated market research, into detailing what its audience likes and looks for, while simultaneously declaring, “We are not a popularity contest.” We are not dependent on ticket sales. This museum is going on with the difficult, costly, unpopular, behind-the-scenes work of conservation, research and education.

Fine. Great. But audience polling often leads to audience pandering — one might even say it inevitably leads to audience pandering. What other purpose does it have? Why else do you investigate what your customers want if you’re not going to capitalize on that — if you’re not going to start giving them what they want?

There is at least one justification for this that aligns with those hard-to-sell,  hard-to-pay-for principles of the art museum that Anderson extolled.

Education. Ours and theirs.

As Stage West founder Jerry Russell said of planning a theater’s subscription season: Going in, you generally already know which shows people will like. The point of a subscription season is to get them to see the shows they don’t know they’d like. Or that they’d really need. Spiritually. Aesthetically. Personally.

Same thing here. The free-admission approach gets people in the door. Anyone can do that. OK, not just anyone, but still, the real trick is to get them to come back. And to learn why they did. To that end, the new ground-floor membership program, called DMA Friends, is designed so that people can earn points by doing different things in the museum: seeing this exhibit, visiting the Center for Creative Connections, attending a lecture, whatever. In other words, you want to earn enough points to win that free parking space? Go experience something in the galleries you normally wouldn’t have tried.

Not only does this open up under-explored areas, it will permit the DMA to track people’s interactions with the museum’s offerings and it will  help the DMA understand how better to pitch those offerings — to widely individual interests.

This isn’t pandering (one hopes). A single museum exhibition or gallery can be as complex and ephemeral a production as any Hollywood movie or Broadway show. There are so many moving parts — from the marketing and the traffic flow to the audio tour and the placement of the paintings, let alone the thinking behind the show itself, why this artist (or period or school), why these samples of his artistry, what point are we trying to make with all this?

Now imagine seven or eight of these shows going on at once — with children’s areas and jazz concerts in the atrium, a gift shop and Arts & Letters Live readings. Figuring out what works and what doesn’t can take years of experience. And figuring out how to educate people into at least visiting, possibly enjoying, the African collection or the Pacific Islands gallery or some bewildering new multi-media show — that can take up a whole career.

The DMA’s new marketing research plan may accelerate that learning curve. It’s not so much figuring out what museum visitors want and then giving it to them. It’s figuring out how they think, what they appreciate.

And then helping them appreciate some more.