Picasso Goes to Work
Lean times have pushed the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to become more enterprising. You may never think of museums the same way again.
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Of course, the MIA will need more than micro-loans. So this year, Feldman rolled out a strategic plan with several new initiatives for boosting revenue and attendance, including one called Museum Inc. It’s a catchy way of suggesting the museum is open for business and ready to goose its earned revenue, or the money it brings in through its own enterprise: ticket sales, merchandise, food and drink. Right now, that revenue hovers around 5 percent of total income, a pittance compared to other arts organizations. Some national studies peg dance companies at the low end with an average of 30 percent, and theaters at the high end with 50 to 60 percent (this is true of many Twin Cities theaters, such as the Guthrie and Park Square). Feldman would be glad to get to 20 percent.
The MIA has already begun charging for once-free parking and contracted a wedding planner to tap into that lucrative market. Moreover, it has hired Hunter Palmer Wright as its venture innovation director. Wright worked at the Philip Johnson Glass House in Connecticut and the Museum of Modern Art in New York before relocating to Minneapolis earlier this year. She says the first step is for the MIA to move away from what she calls “apologetic amenities”—the Monet tote bag and puny cinnamon roll we have come to expect from museums. “We want audience members not only seeing the best art but also having the best coffee and retail experience, starting with the lobby and extending across the whole museum,” she says. The MIA has already given its gift shop a makeover, culling tired offerings and introducing artisan jewelry from around the world. New food and beverage partnerships are in the works.
Wright invokes Manhattan’s Ace Hotel as a model of what a museum could be: not work, not home, but a separate “third space” for socializing. The Ace’s lobby offers coffee by Portland-based Stumptown and two gift shops, one of which is run by the hip boutique Opening Ceremony. It’s packed with laptop-tapping visitors who are not staying at the hotel. This welcoming, neighbor-friendly space is the goal, Wright says: “We really want to enhance the whole neighborhood.”
The department of audience engagement at the MIA was known until this year as “external affairs,” which could be taken to mean that the public is something to be handled with latex gloves. Reconfigured, the department now aims to actively invite the audience into the world of art, to be a conduit for conversation rather than a platform for dispensing wisdom. Feldman believes many people still want museums to be sources of authority, but they also want to contribute their own experience and insight. In fact, younger museumgoers—millenials—are arguably the most educated generation yet, and they want to give as well as take.
Hill, of the Grown-Up Field Trip, is brimming with ideas for fomenting that back-and-forth. Last year at the Walker Art Center, she initiated the Internet Cat Video Festival, a surprise hit that drew 10,000 people and sparked copycat festivals across the nation. Earlier this year, the MIA hosted a Tudor Keg Party to complement its exhibit on Shakespeare-era dining. In the works: a Bike Night, with valet bike parking, and a Dog Day when pets will be invited to the museum.
To further appeal to the elusive millennials, some at the MIA have suggested piping music into the galleries, as younger generations are accustomed to background noise. Social media is ramping up: the Field Trip was promoted entirely through Twitter and Facebook. Following the museum’s after-hours Third Thursday events, Emma Bauer, a recent University of Minnesota graduate who now works in audience engagement, scours Instagram for posts tagged “MIA”—and responds to each one.
It’s a delicate proposition, blending high and low to bring in new audiences; reaching out to the iPod generation while remaining recognizable to the hi-fi set. “Traditionalists might say we’re ‘dumbing down’ the museum,” Feldman notes. “But we are deeply committed to inquiry. For 50 years, museums have engaged audiences through education departments; we now believe all departments are education departments.”
Bauer, the youngest staffer at the MIA, says that in the midst of her social-media juggling she sometimes takes her breaks in the galleries. “In the middle of all my tweeting and scheduling, I’ll go into the galleries and take in art—slowly,” she says. “It’s refreshing.” This is, of course, what the museum ultimately hopes for its new audiences—when they’re not sipping gourmet coffee, listening to bands, or drinking Tudor beer.
Jessica Nordell is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, and Salon.