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Bonnie Pitman: Expanding the Art Museum’s Reach

by Jerome Weeks 1 Sep 2011 1:39 PM

Before stepping down as director of the Dallas Museum of Art, Bonnie Pitman wrote a groundbreaking study of audience responses. It may prove an important legacy to art museums.

Kawasaki: Ferry on the Rokugo River by Utagawa Hiroshige, 1834. Dallas Museum of Art

Bonnie Pitman stepped down as the director of the Dallas Museum of Art in April for health reasons. Even as she did, studies that Pitman led at the DMA have begun to help museums modernize and expand the ways they present themselves. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports this may be Pitman’s most important legacy to the art world.

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When Bonnie Pitman came to the DMA in 2000 as deputy director, she quickly saw the museum was not drawing the numbers of people it should. She held public conversations with some 400 Dallasites of all walks of life to learn why, and she discovered, as she says, “The people who knew us loved us. The people who didn’t know us, didn’t know as at all.”

The DMA had no settled image or brand or appeal; there was no clear public awareness of just what it held, what it was about. So the DMA hired the research firm, Randi Korn & Associates. Museums often survey visitors for demographic data like income, age, media preferences. But Pitman was after very different information. Beginning in 2003, the firm interviewed nearly four thousand visitors to determine: Why do we go to museums?

Pitman: “Do you want to be involved in learning from scholars, creating works, responding to artists? What type of experience do you want to have?”

Of course, museum administrators already knew different visitors respond differently to art. It’s like  church: We may be there together, but some of us pray silently, some of us gotta sing.

Thirty percent of museum visitors already know a lot about art but are keen to learn even more. The DMA calls them the enthusiasts. Others may not know much but enjoy just contemplating the art. They’re known as observers, and they make up 26 percent of attendees.  Still others – energized by the museum experience – like to socialize or create their own art or music. They’re known as participants, and they’re around one-quarter of all museumgoers.

But with her data, Randi Korn found a fourth cluster, the smallest at only 20 percent but an important set (almost 32 percent of them are artists): They’re the independents. They may be confident with art, like the enthusiasts, but they prefer finding their own way around it.

Sitting in the Asian gallery at the Dallas Museum of Art, Lee Pelley responds to ten statements from the DMA survey about the ways people experience art.

Weeks: “I feel comfortable looking at most types of art.”

Pelley: “Yes.”

Weeks: “I like to know about the story portrayed in a work of art.”

Pelley: “Oh, yes.”

Her responses indicate she’s most like an enthusiast. But Pelley’s husband Richard responds to the same ten statements more like an independent.

Weeks: “I like to know about the story portrayed in a work of art.”

Richard: “Minimal.”

Weeks: “I like to be told a straightforward insight to help me know what the art is about.”

Richard: “Not so much.”

‘I find some terms used in art museums difficult to understand,’ ‘I am emotionally affected by art’ – the ten statements are simple enough, but they’re the core of Pitman’s groundbreaking research. Her book, Ignite the Power of Art (co-written with Ellen Hirzy), was published in January by Yale University Press and has already been reprinted. Pitman won this year’s distinguished service award from the American Association of Museums — which cited her initiatives in enhancing visitors’ encounters with art. And in May, she spoke to the staff at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to help the Met update its thinking about audience approaches.

There’s been much talk in the museum world about Pitman’s research, says Maxell Anderson, the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He says by habit, museum directors often focus on the intentions of the artists, how to respect them, how to convey them. But then they stop there, and rarely reverse their thinking and try to understand the entire exhibition from a patron’s point of view.

Anderson: “So while all of us have done navel-gazing about our visitors, Bonnie has actually drilled into motivations of visitors. The hope is we’ll learn more about how to communicate  effectively with visitors in explaining both the works in our collection and our mission and connect on levels that are perhaps more personal and less purely instructional. And that can build a better bond with visitors and make museums more relevant to their lives.”

Pitman says that as important as the study and its  audience insights were, the crucial difference was acting on them. The museum staff began trying different approaches and tracking the results. This led to a number of the DMA’s efforts in recent years, some of which have been more successful than others: adding soundscapes to one exhibition (Coastlines), staging live performances in another (All the World’s a Stage), holding jazz concerts in the atrium, establishing the Center for Creative Connections, where patrons can explore a hands-on approach to art.

And there are even less academic labels on the walls.

One of the biggest challenges, Pitman says, remains how to present artworks for enthusiasts who like to learn everything — without frustrating the independents who may find all that extra information distracting. It’s one reason the DMA has pioneered online access and the use of smartphones.

Pitman: “Thank heavens for new technologies. If you go on the smartphone tours at the museum, you can stand in front of the Jackson Pollock, and you can look at a curator talking or you can hear a conservator. I mean, you can go as much as you want to in these different areas.”


Pitman insists, she’s not dumbing down the art. If anything, her approach complicates museum presentations. In designing exhibitions, curators have often thought in terms of ordinary observers or visitors much like themselves – most curators, naturally enough, are enthusiasts. Now they consider all the different ways a single exhibition can engage people — from galleries to lectures to  performances to online. The audience clusters overlap and so can events. Research has shown that even something as casual and popular as Late Nights at the museum can include sophisticated lectures. It just depends on what’s offered and how it’s presented.

Pitman: “All of this set up an expectation with our community. You could come to the Dallas Museum of Art and feel more comfortable because we were consciously trying to think about you. It’s our mission to provide this huge range of experience.”

Since 2000, the DMA has acquired 3,500 new works, raised $187 million for its Campaign for a New Century  (“The DMA: Now with Even More Art!”). But perhaps as significant, it doubled its attendance figures.

No longer the director of the DMA, Pitman continues to work on projects there. She’s guiding the museum’s new 400-page handbook, for instance. It’s set for release in February – with new  information available online and in the galleries.

And yes, there’ll be an app for that.

All images courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art.

  • Rawlins Gilliland

    Excellent piece on the air yesterday about this. It was very interesting and much of what we learned was at odds with what I would have perceived.

  • James Cheney

    I think the minimal labeling movement is far more an artifact of museums studies philosophers than a response to a genuine cry from ‘the folk’ for less information. Museum directors these days love to talk about the unmediated aesthetic experience and communing with the work of art purely on its own terms. It’s the directors who don’t want labels. People off the street like them and tend to read them before looking at the art, which drives the aesthete museum professionals nuts. They are not projecting themselves into the heads of the average Joe or Joanna but projecting onto them their own laws of art appreciation. I’m all for smart labeling that answers questions of extra-artistic import (why is the saint accompanied by a pet bear?; who were the people who paid for this?) or are related to the conventions of usage and manufacture of the art work’s time (the form of the frame; the purpose of an altarpiece). Language can and should be simple and expository, and those who don’t like labels shouldn’t be compelled to read them.

  • Jerome Weeks

    Perhaps you’re right, Mr. Cheney: Current talk favoring the “unmediated aesthetic experience” may be a matter of aesthetic theory among museum professionals. But ‘Ignite the Power of Art’ is not derived from aesthetic theory. If the Pitman/RKA survey is to be believed, there ARE, in fact, people who do find a lot of extra information on the walls in an exhibition distracting. This is not simply a projection on the part of Pitman, as the 20 percent of respondents in the research showed and as the responses from Mr. Pelley showed, too — a subject whom I interviewed personally. “Independents” often trust their own prior knowledge or judgment of art (a third of them are artists, remember).

    When we speak about information on walls, it’s not simply the individual painting labels we’re talking about but the larger, contextual introductions and explanations an exhibition may provide. Some of the group called “observers,” who may be unfamiliar with art, may find such information intimidating. They may not understand it. What is “constructivism”? Who cares about the name of the donor? Why is it important if it’s a ‘gelatin silver print” or a “photogravure”? Is any of that relevant if I just find the artwork moving?

    Your assumptions about what museum professionals project on to patrons are also up for debate. Most museum professionals fall into the “enthusiast” category and find such issues fascinating. When they do extol the “unmediated experience,” it may well be in service of an aesthetic theory that prizes the naive and the original over their own inescapable self-consciousness. Or they may simply be trying to compensate for the obvious fact that members of the public may not have the same interest in art-historical minutiae they do.

    In fact, you lump together all information of “extra-artistic import,” when one of the revealing nuggets in the Pitman/RKA study is that patrons in different categories actually prefer DIFFERENT kinds of information. Some want to know about the artist’s materials and process (possibly because they’re ‘participants’ and are keen to create their own works), while others couldn’t care less. They just want help deciphering who are all of these minor deities and Italian counts the painters have stuck in here.

    Again, what’s significant about the Pitman/RKA study is that it COMPLICATES the picture of museumgoers beyond our impressions that “they’re either art lovers or they’re rubes.” What surprised me, when reading the book and interviewing people about it, is that anyone with an intro-level background in market research would tell you that these are pretty basic insights. Yet 1) they’ve never been studied or advanced before in the museum field and 2) I’m willing to bet much the same lack of study holds true for audience research in live theater, classical music, dance and so forth.

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  • James Cheney

    Thanks for the thoughtful response, Mr. Weeks. Perhaps my debatable arguments were overly provocative in tone, but I’m glad they prompted your comments.

  • JasonM

    Very very interesting. I’m an “enthusiast” here. I respect what they’re doing there. And it really supports the public mission.

    But there’s some degree of tension among serving all these groups, I’ll wager. I literally can’t stand to be around the “Center for Creative Connections” or whatever they call the amusement park on the ground floor. To me, that’s all about distracting and dumbing down. When I look at most education materials, I feel they insult my intelligence.

    That all goes deeply against the way I’ve been trained (or, “programmed”) to experience art — to let the work stand on its own, to look quietly, to contemplate. I really don’t like when they feel they have to do a “song and dance” to entertain people who don’t have the patience or interest to look “properly.” I think those people should just stay home.

    But, I recognize that mine is only one possible point of view. And that’s why I’m not running a museum 🙂

  • Jerome Weeks

    Well, as I quote Pitman, one of the biggest challenges remains “how to present artworks for enthusiasts who like to learn everything — without frustrating the independents who may find all that extra information distracting.”

    And personally, I don’t find the use of smartphones a completely satisfying answer to the challenge. But then, there may never be a completely satisfying answer. Using my iPhone feels cumbersome and clunky, hauling it out to find the relevant interview, video, podcast, citation, whatever. If I were doing research on a work, then yes, I’d happily sit down somewhere and take the necessary time and trouble. But if it’s just to find out ‘who is this in the picture?’, it’s irksome.

    As much as the Center for Creative Connections may seem dumb to you — which I understand, it interests me only occasionally — think of it this way: It’s not really intended for you, you have the rest of the museum to enjoy. It turns out, however, that it’s one of the more popular sites in the DMA. So they must be doing something right in trying to engage viewers who might find everything else intimidating.