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Badges! Rewards! The DMA Unveils Its New Membership Interface

by Jerome Weeks 17 Jan 2013 5:50 PM

The free admission stuff is easy. Just walk in the door. But take a tour of what’s also free starting Monday: an entire system of carrots and sticks that’ll let the DMA learn about you and your behavior around, you know, art.


On Monday, the Dallas Museum of Art will put its new, free admissions policy in place, a policy that requires some explanation. Sparky, rev up the PowerPoint Q&A.

1. You wanna visit the DMA? Yes.

2. Is it open? Yes.

3. Go in.

End of explanation. Sparky, unplug the PowerPoint.

As DMA director Maxwell Anderson (above) said today, entrance fees make up only four percent of museum revenue — unless that museum happens to be in New York and gets swarms of foreign visitors. So it’s not such a huge, complicated deal to find a donor who sees the value in coughing up that relatively little extra philanthropic effort, a little effort that’ll lead to a big uptick in public goodwill and a much wider museum audience.

Huzzah. Congratulations to everyone involved. We’ve democratized a cultural experience. Although, of course, none of this applies to touring shows and special events or the Arts & Letters Live series. You’ll still have to pay for those.

What’s actually complicated is the DMA’s new free membership policy — involving, as it does, iPad kiosks throughout the museum displaying a digital interface that staff members were up til midnight last night testing to get ready for the media preview today. They’re still working out the bugs.

To be clear: To visit the museum, you don’t have to become a member — what’s now known as becoming a ‘DMA Friend.’  And if you are already a DMA member, welcome, new Friend — you’re automatically re-assigned, although you may find that your level of membership no longer carries the same perks. They may cost more.

But there’ll be no hard sell or requirement for anyone to pay anything.  (Remember the free admissions policy? Don’t make Sparky start the PowerPoint all over again).  In fact, you don’t have to pay anything to become your basic DMA Friend, either.

But you do have to register.

Why would you want to?

Lots of reasons. The new membership system is elaborately ‘incentivized’ — there are some 40 or 50 ‘badges,’ different activities that’ll earn you points. Bring a group of three or more to the museum to register as Friends and you’re a “Ringleader.” Go to several Jazz in the Atrium concerts and you get the ‘I Got Rhythm’ badge.

As a good Boy or Girl Scout, you earn enough of these merit badges (and their accompanying points or credits), and you can claim your rewards. These can be free parking, a private tour, free tickets to a touring exhibition or even an upgrade to a ‘serious’ membership level, the DMA Partner, which normally would require you to come up with $100 at least (with various benefactor levels going up into the thousands of dollars).

1. So let’s take a tour: The iPad kiosk shows you a sign-in page (below left) and when you do register, you get your membership card printed out. In the future, you can just show the card’s barcode, and the system will recognize you. You’ll also be able to log in online – on your own laptop or anywhere you are with a phone.


2. Your membership page (above right) lists the ‘badges’ you’ve earned, plus activities that’ll win you more. The system tracks your activities, and you’ll see codes posted in the DMA galleries that let you register (having visited the African art gallery, for example), thus earning more points. You can even earn points by texting the DMA about some insight you’ve had on a work of art (“Man, that Courbet sure can paint.”) Each work will have its own code number for you to enter.

3. There’s also a rewards page (left) with  rewards you can claim: tickets to a touring exhibition, free parking. Some rewards are open-ended (upgrade to being a DMA Partner), others are limited in time or number.

All of this is more complicated to explain than it is to go through. We’re all pretty familiar with ATMs and online registrations by now. As Anderson put it, the whole experience should be like picking up your boarding pass at an airport. Especially if you know how to redeem frequent flyer miles (he didn’t say that last part).

All of this is meant to be fun and engaging and designed to get you out of the gift shop and into corners of the DMA you haven’t seen before. You may like something you see.

The truly interesting, still-largely unanswered questions about all this are on the other end: What will the DMA do with the audience data it’ll be gathering? Anderson made it clear that the information visitors provide will be secure. As he noted, if they don’t feel confident in the DMA to keep it private, then they won’t be eager to sign up, thus kinda ruining the whole point of this.

He did give one rather nifty, real-time application: Museums typically schedule tours of exhibitions at set times. Visitors have to know beforehand to show up. Which means people often come to an exhibition, and then learn they just missed a tour. But what if, Anderson said, the DMA sees that quite a few people have registered and shown up in a particular gallery or a touring show? Why not respond to audience interest in real-time? Send up a docent and ask the visitors present, Care for a guided tour?

But surely, the DMA already knows, to some extent, which galleries are favorites, which shows are likely to draw people. It’s true, much of this membership interface is designed to get people into places they don’t normally go. They might like the spinach after all. And it’s true that, as Anderson said, what he’s interested in, ultimately, is the people who aren’t going and why that is.

But when pressed about just what an already engaged, self-selected audience like the new DMA Friends could reveal about people’s needs and impulses concerning art, displaying art in a museum, the entire art museum experience,  Anderson said, it’s early days still. Give ’em time to learn what they’re going to learn.

“We’re starting at a very base level,” he said. “Farmers know more about their livestock, frankly, than museums know about their visitors.”