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Long-Awaited Book on Improving Museum Experience Is Out from the DMA

by Jerome Weeks 24 Jan 2011 12:28 PM

The Dallas Museum of Art has released director Bonnie Pittman’s book, ‘Ignite the Power of Art’ — which is based on her pioneering research into the different ways visitors interact with exhibitions and how museums can tailor their offerings to the four types of museum-goer: observer, independent, enthusiast and participant.


The first we heard of Ignite the Power of Art was back in March when the New York Times interviewed Dallas Museum of Art director Bonnie Pitman on pioneering research that she’d led, research directed at determining the why, how, who and what of museum-going: who visits museums, how do they experience the exhibitions, what results — if any — might come from putting a museum’s collections online? The seven-year research project, called The Framework for Engaging with Art, went beyond ordinary demographics or ticket sales to understand how better to engage the different responses people have to museum shows.

Today, the DMA has released Pittman’s book, Ignite the Power of Art: Advancing Visitor Engagement in Museums, to be distributed by Yale University Press. The book provides an overview of the research done by the DMA and Randi Korn & Associates along with the institutional changes the museum has enacted in response to the study’s division of visitors into four types, each with their own style of interacting with the museum’s offerings: the observer, the independent, the enthusiast and the participant.

The full release follows:

Dallas Museum of Art Publishes Ignite the Power of Art: Advancing Visitor Engagement in Museums Offering New Model for Engaging Diverse Audiences

Distributed by Yale University Press, Book Reveals Innovative Audience Research with Far-Reaching Ramifications for Museum Field

DALLAS, January 24, 2011 – The Dallas Museum of Art is releasing an important new book that offers groundbreaking insight into how museum visitors connect with art and how museums can create enriching and engaging experiences for diverse audiences. Distributed by Yale University Press, Ignite the Power of Art: Advancing Visitor Engagement in Museums reveals findings from the DMA’s innovative seven-year research on the different preferences and behaviors of museum goers. The book documents how the Museum’s new understanding of its audience and community transformed its practices and programs, leading to a 100% increase in overall attendance and dramatic increases in the Museum’s visibility, membership, and public programming participation.

Written by Bonnie Pitman, The Eugene McDermott Director of the DMA, and Ellen Hirzy, Ignite the Power of Art captures the vibrant and collaborative spirit in which the Dallas Museum of Art engages with its community, and offers dramatic insight that can be applied readily by art museums throughout the country seeking to expand their reach and connect with their audiences more deeply. (Price: $25.00; ISBN: 978-0-300-16754-2; Pages: 222 with 141 color illus. + 6 tables)

“Ignite the Power of Art examines a fundamental change in our approach to our visitors, both on-site and online, and our understanding of our own mission to connect art and people in the most purposeful way,” said Pitman. “The book is a record of our ongoing process of experimentation and evaluation, and of the dynamic, all-encompassing renewal that has occurred at the DMA—including innovation in our multi-disciplinary programming, transformation of our spaces, and the strengthening of relationships both inside and outside the Museum. It represents an extraordinary achievement for the DMA, and for Dallas, and provides an important new model for arts communities around the country.”

Ignite the Power of Art first provides an overview of the Framework for Engaging with Art, the DMA’s visitor research initiative that was developed jointly by DMA staff and Randi Korn & Associates, Inc., which identified four distinct groups of museum visitors. The book also offers an intimate look at how, as a result of the study, the DMA transformed its institutional thinking, developing a new comprehensive operational strategy and broader range of experimental programs with the variety of visitor preferences in mind. Ignite the Power of Art also contains interviews with several Dallas community leaders who offer their perspectives on the Museum’s significant revitalization.

About the Research Initiative and Its Impact at the DMA

Conceived in 2002, the Framework for Engaging with Art research was driven by the desire to deepen visitors’ connections and experiences with art at the Museum. Probing beyond traditional museum visitor studies, this research posed a series of qualitative questions about how visitors prefer to engage with art in the museum setting and their comfort levels looking at and talking about art.

The DMA administered six different studies from 2003 through 2009, encompassing some 3,400questionnaires from visitors to the Museum and its website, and from local teachers, as well as nearly 40 in-depth interviews conducted on-site at the Museum. The cumulative findings identified the following four related “visitor clusters,” grouped according to individual preference for interpretation types and comfort levels with art:

Observers, who have the most limited background in art and art history, and who tend to prefer a guided experience at the museum.

Participants, who have a stronger knowledge of art than Observers and have the strongest interest in connecting with works of art through a variety of ways, including through music, dance, dramatic performances, and readings.

Independents, who prefer to experience a work of art without explanations or interpretation.

Enthusiasts, who are most emotionally affected by art, and are most interested in the artist’s materials and techniques, and in explaining the meaning of a work to a friend.

Armed with this new insight into its audience’s preferences and interests, the Museum developed 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 led to the creation of new experimental initiatives at the Museum, including the DMA’s Center for Creative Connections (C3), which offers interactive experiences with original works of art from the DMA’s collections; Wi-Fi–enabled smARTphone tours, which provide myriad ways for visitors to learn more about the works in the Museum’s collections; and interactive collections-based exhibitions and special late-night events. In addition to a100% increase in Museum attendance, this expanded program has motivated more than 50% of visitors to participate in educational and public programming at the Museum.

About the Dallas Museum of Art

Located in the vibrant Arts District of downtown Dallas, Texas, the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) ranks among the leading art institutions in the country and is distinguished by its innovative exhibitions and groundbreaking educational programs. At the heart of the Museum and its programs are its global collections, which encompass more than 24,000 works and span 5,000 years of history, representing a full range of world cultures. Established in 1903, the Museum welcomes approximately 600,000 visitors annually and acts as a catalyst for community creativity, engaging people of all ages and backgrounds with a diverse spectrum of programming, from exhibitions and lectures to concerts, literary readings, and dramatic and dance presentations.

The Dallas Museum of Art is supported in part by the generosity of Museum members and donors and by the citizens of Dallas through the City of Dallas/Office of Cultural Affairs and the Texas Commission on the Arts.

  • John Viramontes – Council for Artists’ Rights

    Dallas wildflower artist Chapman Kelley directly challenged Pitman’s book premise when in 2010 he asked her to remove his award-winning painting Sand Dune (1960) from a DMA ‘Coastlines’ exhibit because she allowed some unauthorized acoustics to be added to it. Kelley said his personality and moral rights were violated by her ‘added on’ sound effects, as codified under a section of U.S. copyright law called the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990. Art historian Sam Blain analyzed this artists’ rights issue recently in his Dallas Art History blog here: