Seeking new paths to grow museums

Sunday, September 28
PITTSFIELD — In the tightly budgeted world of nonprofits, new ideas for building audiences are as precious as major gifts.

Not only do added numbers boost immediate income at the ticket desk, but they can translate into long-term paying memberships and into measurements of community support on grant applications.

It was no surprise then, that when Berkshire Museum Executive Director Stuart Chase heard marketing consultant James Chung talk about audience demographics at an American Association of Museums conference in Boston three years ago, his ears pricked up.

And when he learned recently that Chung had relocated his offices to Slingerlands, N.Y., just outside of Albany, he snared him to be the featured speaker at the museum's annual meeting last Monday.

"As the economy changes and dollars become tighter," Chase said, "we have to be nimble on our feet to respond to opportunities. But it's hard for nonprofits with limited resources to get up-to-date information. This (audience data) is crucial."

Chung, president of Reach Advisors, specializes in audience research for museums, tourism organizations and performing arts venues that are facing shifts in the marketplace.

The findings he presented during a 40-minute slide talk Monday night were based, he said, on interviews over the past year with 30,000 museum visitors, mostly in the United States and mostly online.

What they showed, he said, is that the traditional audience base for museums of all kinds is "static and declining" while other visitor groups — minorities, older men, young single women and young mothers — are changing.

If museums are to grow their audiences and their relevance, he said, they need to understand what these unpredictable groups are looking for and capitalize on their interests.

  • Men over 60, for example, who are affluent and well-educated, have become particularly committed museum-goers, Chung said, preferring to explore a collection on their own terms rather than follow a prepackaged narration. Mystic Seaport has been especially successful in appealing to them, Chung said, with active programs like boat restoration and knot-tying that take them back to boyhood.

  • Single Generation Y women in their 20s are another shifting segment. Often better educated and earning as much or more than their male counterparts, they represent a "reverse gender gap," Chung said, with resources and an untapped interest in arts and crafts.

  • Generation X mothers in their 30s and 40s make up another shifting segment, he said, who are seeking a sense of "community" for themselves and their children. Many are the first in their families to leave home for college and a job and are looking to connect with local institutions and people. Ironically, the children's, science, and nature museums they turn to often provide them with too little adult enrichment.

  • Minority groups — people of color and Hispanics in particular — are showing big increases in museum attendance, depending on the museum's program and geographic location.

  • "Tweens," or preadolescents, are an untapped segment who often respond to discovery-type, treasure-hunt approaches, Chung said.

    In fact, he went on, the most committed museum supporters — "museum advocates," he called them — said they were hooked by experiences as 5 to 7-year-olds and became life-long culture consumers.

    Chung did not discuss ways to respond to the survey findings beyond saying that situations varied and each institution needed to devise its own strategies.

    The data applied to audiences for art, science, children's and historic site museums," he said. Audiences for the performing arts, and tourists, we not part of this study.

    Maria Mingalone, the Berkshire Museum's director of interpretation, said the museum is fortunate to have different departments of art, science and history that can appeal to a wide and intergenerational audience. It has capitalized on that diversity in recent years, she said, by "mixing up" art and science in exhibitions like "The Presence of Light," "Bug Out of the Box," that engage children with hands-on activity, while providing adults with intellectual stimulation.

    The paradigm for museums everywhere is shifting, she said, from one of "we're the experts" to one that's much more visitor-oriented. And knowing how the audience is changing can help museums stay relevant.


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