Cultural Anchors

Last Monday, the Penn Institute for Urban Research sponsored a panel discussion at the PMA titled Cultural Anchors: Art Museums and the City. The event took place as part of the institute’s Arts and the City Seminar Series. Besides being at the museum already, I wanted to take advantage of this discussion as a former museum history and theory student at the Courtauld; this is exactly the type of talk that would’ve been required in my course, but it really was so much more enjoyable attending out of my own free will. Funny how that is.

Let me present the very distinguished panel: James Cuno, President and Eloise W. Martin Director of the Art Institute of Chicago (and former director of the Courtauld), Bonnie Pitman, Eugene McDermott Director of the Dallas Museum of Art, Timothy Rub, (our very own) George D. Widener Director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Michael E. Shapiro, Nancy and Holcombe T. Green, Jr. Director of the High Museum of Art. From here on out I’ll just refer to them by city; those endowment titles really do get lengthy.

Eugenie Birch, the Co-director of the Penn IUR served as the moderator and had some great questions to get the directors talking. She asked about the role of education in the museum, how each museum is affected by it’s location in the respective city, what the architecture does for the collection, and on and on. I just want to highlight some tidbits of information that stood out to me during the discussion.

Atlanta: One of the missions of the High Museum is to achieve a level of cultural diversity that was not evident in the early years of the museum. Up through the 1950s, I believe, African Americans were only allowed in the museum after hours, with a university professor as escort. Now, the museum celebrates its broad collection of African and African American Art with a curator devoted entirely to the subject.

The High Museum has also taken on a marketing campaign to attract a younger audience to the museum. Their first effort with this was organizing the Dali exhibition; research has shown that Dali’s art generally appeals to a younger audience. The museum also mounted various billboard ads in what Michael Shapiro called the “hipster neighborhood” that feature a photograph of Dali but no mention of the museum at all. Even the website advertised is not the normal url for the museum, but, a link to a duplicate of the High Museum’s Dali exhibition page. These unbranded posters are meant to create intrigue and target those who generally don’t visit the museum. Clever, eh?

Chicago: The Art Institute has a great history in the city of Chicago, and as an institution of the city, it is required to incorporate 52 days of free admission annually. James Cuno decided, with the input of the board, of course, that it would benefit the museum to open the entire month of February for free, plus Thursdays throughout the year. I’m sure this seemed like a smart move considering that Chicago is usually covered in snow at this point, and many people don’t want to leave their homes, but Mr Cuno was impressed by the turnout. Not only were Chicagoans making their way to the museum, but tourists were flocking in as well.

Historically, even though admission was free during February, about half of museum patrons still paid their entry, either out of guilt or generosity. However, in 2009, 69% of February visitors were non-paying–creating a hugh gap in projected versus actual income. To me, it seems almost expected that 69% of visitors would not pay if they didn’t have to. As a student, I would definitely take advantage of that. It is surprising, though, that the numbers changed so dramatically in one year’s time, even with the economic downturn.

Dallas: All I can say is WOW for the amount of research Bonnie Pitman has done on museum education and outreach. She really does want to attract more people to the museum, and help those people already visiting the museum have the best possible experience. Ms Pitman has given her staff free reign to try anything once, and, perhaps through that, programs such as Late Nights and Jazz in the Atrium have been implemented.

My favorite part about Bonnie Pitman’s research, other than the increasing numbers of visitors, is how her team categorizes visitors in order to design events. There are four clusters: the independent visitors who walk through the museum with a purpose and dislike interference, the observers who take in the atmosphere but remain distanced, the participants who become involved with either a tour or a lecture from time to time, and, finally, the enthusiasts who cannot get enough of everything the museum has to offer. Which one of these groups describes you as a museum visitor? Personally, I have embodied all of these descriptions at one time or another. It all depends on my mood and how comfortable I feel in a particular museum.

Back to the Dallas Museum…I also want to mention the Young Collectors: this group of patrons, all under the age of 50, got together on their own accord to raise money to buy art for the museum. I don’t know what spurred them to do this, again, guilt or generosity…or maybe it was the tax write-off laws in Texas (I can’t speak with any experience about this). Luckily, they are purchasing works with the museum’s collection in mind and are willing to accept some advice from the director. The museum has so far received 1,500 works of art from this organization–an amazing success for the museum, and just a little extra work for Bonnie Pitman.

Finally, Philadelphia: Timothy Rub mentioned that membership at the PMA actually increased in the midst of the recession. Loyal visitors to the museum wanted their full money’s worth, and decided to pay one lump sum rather than an admission fee each visit. The PMA is not required to offer free admission days, like in Chicago, but Pay What you Wish days still exist on the first Sunday of each month.

The next step for Timothy Rub is to find a way to bring in people from the suburbs of Philadelphia, possibly by building relationships with schools and community groups. I think he should try some unbranded billboards. Just an idea.

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