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DMA Study Released: Details to Come

by Jerome Weeks 24 Mar 2010 4:26 PM

Last week, Dallas Museum of Art director Bonnie Pitman was profiled in The New York Times because of her pioneering work in what would seem simple enough — surveying museum visitors on how they look at the walls. But the seven-year research project, called The Framework for Engaging with Art study, went beyond ordinary demographics […]


Last week, Dallas Museum of Art director Bonnie Pitman was profiled in The New York Times because of her pioneering work in what would seem simple enough — surveying museum visitors on how they look at the walls. But the seven-year research project, called The Framework for Engaging with Art study, went beyond ordinary demographics or ticket numbers to understand how better to engage people when they have very different responses to the same shows.

Today, the DMA released a press release (full text below the fold) which announces the study and how it was done with noted museum researcher Randi Korn, founding director of Randi Korn & Associates. It elaborates on what we learned in the Times story: four different types of museum visitors, the DMA has been recasting its operations in light of what the survey has revealed — to great effect (100 percent increase in visitors, 50 percent of whom now participate in educational and public programs). These changes include designing exhibitions with interactive, cross-disciplinary ideas in mind, like All the World’s a Stage.

But for much beyond that, we’re still going to have to wait for Pitman’s book, Ignite the Power of Art: Advancing Visitor Engagement in Museum Experiences, which won’t be out until sometime this summer.

Groundbreaking Seven-Year Museum Study Provides Unprecedented Insight into Visitor Preferences for Experiencing Art And Offers New Model for Engaging Diverse Audiences

Directed by Dallas Museum of Art, Innovative Audience Research Has Deep Ramifications for Museum Field

DALLAS, March 24, 2010 – A groundbreaking, seven-year study that provides unprecedented understanding of the preferences and behaviors of museum visitors has been released by the Dallas Museum of Art. The study and its findings have catalyzed fundamental changes in all aspects of the DMA’s practices and programs—from exhibition and programming development to new marketing strategies and interpretation tools—leading to a 100% increase in attendance and motivating more than 50% of the museum’s visitors to participate in its educational and public programs.

Spearheaded by Bonnie Pitman, The Eugene McDermott Director of the Dallas Museum of Art, A Framework for Engaging with Art offers new insights that can be applied readily to art museums throughout the U.S. seeking to engage their audiences more deeply and to increase their attendance. Drawn from nearly 3,400 surveys conducted between 2003 and 2009, the research probes beyond traditional demographic studies, which museums have historically relied upon to better market their offerings, to ask how visitors prefer to engage with art in the museum setting. The research provides a qualitative analysis of these differing preferences—thereby enabling museums to better shape their offerings and to address varying visitor interests.

“Our findings from the Framework for Engaging with Art study answer significant questions about the role of art museums in our communities, and how we can deepen the engagement of our visitors,” said Pitman. “The research has helped us determine who visits our museum—but more importantly, it reveals how these visitors experience our collections and programs. By applying these findings, the DMA has attracted a broader audience of diverse ages and backgrounds, a goal many museums are currently working toward. The results will continue to have a profound and positive impact on the DMA for years to come, and it will be a touchstone within the museum community at large.”

Developed in conjunction with noted museum researcher Randi Korn, Founding Director of Randi Korn & Associates, the Framework for Engaging with Art study reflects Pitman’s career-long commitment to audience development and engagement. Her watershed report Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums (published in 1992) radically reframed how museums interact with their communities and set industry standards for best practices in the field. The new research will be published by the Dallas Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press this summer under the title Ignite the Power of Art: Advancing Visitor Engagement in Museum Experiences.

About the Study

First conceived in 2002, the Framework for Engaging with Art study was driven by a primary goal of deepening visitors’ connections and experiences with art at the Museum. The study posed a series of qualitative questions about the participant’s experiences, including a visitor’s comfort with looking at and talking about art, emotional reaction to art, familiarity with art historical terms, and interest in learning about the materials and techniques used or the story portrayed in an artwork. By providing a deeper understanding of the museum visitor, the research has encouraged the DMA to work collaboratively across departments to develop new innovative programs with each type of visitor in mind.

“While more traditional demographic studies may be useful for marketing purposes, we found that economic and social categories are not necessarily relevant to the needs and preferences of museum visitors, which was what we were most interested in pinpointing,” said Randi Korn. “The Framework study helped us understand different visitor groups, distinguished by their interests and comfort levels with art, and thus has allowed the Museum to develop programming that better serves its community.”

Between 2003 and 2009, the DMA administered and collected 3,394 questionnaires from visitors to the Museum and its website, and from local teachers with previous contact with the Museum. Thirty-nine in-depth interviews were conducted on-site during all days and hours when the DMA is open to the public, including special late-night hours. The cumulative findings for our general visitors identified four related “visitor clusters.”

These clusters, which are grouped according to individual preference for interpretation types and comfort levels with art, are:

  • Observers

Of the four clusters, these visitors are only somewhat comfortable looking at art, as they have the most limited backgrounds in art and art history, and are least comfortable talking about art. They tend to prefer a guided experience at the museum— seeking straightforward explanations to help them understand what the work of art means—rather than viewing works independently. They may be new to art viewing and just beginning to experience it.

  • Participants

Individuals in this cluster have stronger knowledge of and interest in art. They enjoy learning and the social aspects of their experiences. Participants have the strongest interest in connecting with works of art in a variety of ways, including through music, dance, dramatic performances, and readings. Participants enjoy the social experience of being in the galleries.

  • Independents

Individuals in this group like to view a work of art independently, without explanations or interpretation. These visitors are confident about their knowledge and seek intense interactions with art. Independents are often practicing artists. The group is comfortable with art terminology and with both looking at and talking about art, and is less likely to use interpretative resources during their visit.

  • Enthusiasts

This cluster is comprised of individuals who are confident, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and comfortable looking at all types of art. These visitors actively participate in a wide variety of museum programming, including discussions about art, and enjoy interpretive resources in the galleries. Of the four visitor clusters, members of this group are most emotionally affected by art, and are most interested in the artist materials and techniques, and in explaining the meaning of a work to a friend. Enthusiasts frequently use the museum and are the most likely to be members.

Study Applications at the DMA

A Framework for Engaging with Art has catalyzed innovative programming strategies and operational changes throughout the Museum. By establishing common objectives to broaden and more effectively serve its community, the research encouraged the Museum to develop a new comprehensive operational strategy that unites and integrates all departments—from visitor services and public relations to curatorial and education departments—during the programming development process. The result has been a series of new experimental initiatives—including interactive exhibitions, Wi-Fi–enabled smartphone tours and special late-night events—which, in turn, have helped to effectuate increases in the DMA’s visibility, attendance, membership and public programming participation.

These new initiatives include:

  • The DMA’s Center for Creative Connections

One of the most significant of these new initiatives is the Museum’s Center for Creative Connections (known as C3), an experimental environment within the Museum offering interactive experiences with original works of art from the DMA’s collections. Launched in 2008, C3 presents exhibitions and programs that encourage museum-goers of all ages to explore their own creativity and introduce them to new ways of experiencing art. Programs have ranged from a two-part documentary filmmaking workshop, which was attended by Enthusiasts and Independents, to art-making and performance activities, allowing visitors to create their own interpretations of the art on view, which were particularly of interest to Participants.

  • Interactive Exhibitions-Based Programs

The Framework for Engaging with Art study has also helped the DMA further activate its collections through programs that have multimedia and multidisciplinary dimensions. For example, the forthcoming collections-based exhibition Coastlines: Images of Land and Sea (opening on April 25) will feature an evocative multi-layer sound installation through the exhibition galleries. This “soundscape” will respond directly to the works on display and provide visitors with an immersive and interactive experience of the coastal landscapes presented in the show. This project builds off the experimental program offerings presented in conjunction with the recent exhibition All the World’s a Stage, which explored the intersection between performing and visual arts. The exhibition was supplemented by over 200 artist talks, performances and other programs presented in a dedicated space within the galleries, and featured a special Music Bar that invited visitors to listen to musical interludes relating to works on view. Independents appreciated hearing the artist’s voice; Participants and Enthusiasts appreciated the interactive opportunities; and Observers responded to daily films and concerts.

  • Expanded smARTphone Tours and Digital Presence

The Museum has also dramatically enhanced its online presence with a redesigned website and a new series of smARTphone tours that provide direct access to supplemental information about works from the DMA’s encyclopedic holdings. Through their own Wi-Fi–enabled handheld devices, visitors can engage with the work from the Museum’s holdings in a myriad of ways: Enthusiasts may be drawn to watch a video of Jackson Pollock painting while they stand in front of the artist’s 1947 work Cathedral created with the same technique; Participants may choose to listen to excerpts from Ovid’s Metamorphoses that inspired Jacques-Louis David’s 1722 painting Apollo and Diana Attacking the Children of Niobe; or Observers may discover the meaning of the Aramaic inscriptions that appear in a Roman mosaic of Orpheus from the 1st century A.D. These smARTphone tours—which have been expanded to include the Museum’s Wendy and Emery Reves Collection and such special exhibitions as The Lens of Impressionism (on view through May 23, 2010) and African Masks: The Art of Disguise (opening on August 22, 2010)—provide interactive opportunities for visitors to learn more about art on display, whether they are standing in the galleries or sitting at their desk at home.

  • Innovative Public Programs

Finally, A Framework for Engaging with Art has also encouraged the DMA to expand its public programming, in particular its successful “Late Nights” series, in which visitors are offered monthly opportunities to explore the Museum after hours through multi-disciplinary events and performances that target each of the visitor clusters. These events include “insomniac tours” led by Director Bonnie Pitman, as well as DJs in the galleries, and bedtime stories for the Museum’s youngest visitors. With its diverse group of offerings, the “Late Nights” series allows the DMA to connect with a broader community of visitors from throughout the region and country in new and unexpected ways. It also illustrates the Museum’s determination to serve as a vibrant cultural center with expanded visitor opportunities and access.