It’s noon on a Wednesday, and I’m crouched in the back of a bright-orange school bus, looking through a sliding half-window from which a thousand spitballs have surely been launched. The last time I rode a bus, I had to dodge 11-year-old miscreants furtively lighting hairspray on fire.
But this is a Grown-Up Field Trip, organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and my fellow passengers are not juvenile delinquents but nattily dressed professionals, picked up in downtown Minneapolis for a door-to-door lunchtime arts getaway. The phrases “I can’t remember the last time I was on a school bus!” and “Jeez, this brings back memories!” can be heard up and down the bus. Before long, we’re at the doors of the MIA, greeted by a trio of cheerful docents.
We’re led on a power-tour of More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness, an exhibit that plays on the Stephen Colbert–coined term for the present-day slipperiness of facts and reality. At the end, we’re each handed an “adult Lunchables”—a box of gourmet cheese and crackers, salami, and mini-pickles—and loaded back on the bus. We munch happily as the bus returns downtown, and everyone is back at work by 1 p.m.
The Grown-Up Field Trip was the vision of Katie Hill, the MIA’s newly appointed audience-engagement specialist, as a crafty way to bring in new audiences. “I love getting people to connect with the objects,” Hill says, “but in order for people to connect to the art, you need to get them in the door.” Simple as that. And yet, at this moment in American culture, getting people in the door of an art museum is not as straightforward as it once was.
A recent National Endowment for the Arts report concluded that the group of Americans who regularly attend art institutions is both shrinking and becoming less active. Plus, audience members today have ever-increasing ways to spend their time and hard-earned cash—why schlep to see a colonial tea service when you can watch a cat riding a Roomba from the comfort of your treadmill desk?
Harder still is bringing in dollars. Public and corporate support is slackening. For the first time in modern American history, younger middle-class arts patrons are not expected to build wealth as their parents and grandparents did, a tipping point for museums that rely on goodwill for bequeathed artworks or the funds to acquire them. Across cultural institutions, funding has dipped to the point that a powerhouse museum like the Art Institute of Chicago has been compelled to raise its admission twice in four years.
This month, the MIA opens It’s New/It’s Now: Recent Gifts of Contemporary Prints and Drawings, an exhibit showcasing a remarkable number of recent bequests. These gifts, however, have come with a stinging reality: the museum’s benefactors are literally dying off.
In the director’s office at the MIA, Kaywin Feldman seems animated by art, whirring about her business in knee-high, black-leather boots with pink, blue, and yellow shapes stitched to the sides. Lured to the MIA five years ago from the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, she has a big-picture view of what’s happening to cultural institutions. “We have to start by thinking about the history of cities,” she says, noting that most major American museums are about a hundred years old, built “at a time when cities were coming into their own.” Every great city needed a zoo, a museum, and an orchestra, and funding these institutions was a way to be part of a community. Philanthropists donated a wing or a lobby, becoming proud parts of the very structure itself. “It was a way,” Feldman says, “to stake your claim.”
Today, people are giving differently. Younger donors want data about what their money is accomplishing and perceive themselves as investors rather than philanthropists, Feldman says. She sees this shift as an opportunity, and points to Kiva, the micro-finance platform, as a potential model for museums. Through Kiva, individuals make micro-loans to entrepreneurs and can track how each loan is used. What if museum patrons could “invest” in a particular exhibit and monitor how that money is spent? This type of engagement is “sticky,” Feldman says, and keeps the cost of entry low: Kiva loans can be as small as $25.
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.