Hey Museums, Want to Better Engage Your Audience? Hit the Road.

Imagine, if you will, the following conversation between a museum programming director and a foundation representative.

"So... we're proposing a new exhibition."

"Sounds interesting. What else?"

"Well, at the exhibition, the audience will… look at the paintings."


"And... that's it. The audience will enter the room, look at and hopefully think about the paintings, and walk out. Then they'll get lunch in our new food court. We have a new sushi bar."  

"Hmmm... yeah..." (Awkwardly taps pencil on table.)

We're obviously simplifying the pitch here, but think about the core takeaway for a minute. Museums, by their very nature, offer an intrinsically passive experience. There's nothing wrong with this, but given the seemingly limitless kinds of experiences and technologies vying for visitors' attention, it may no longer be the best audience engagement strategy.

Museums, of course, are more aware of this challenge than anyone else. Their funding depends on coming up with exciting and novel ways to engage audiences. It's why, with help from foundations like Bloomberg Philanthropies, some are embracing mobile apps to make the museum experience more interactive. And we're happy to report they're doing a good job at it. The National Center for Arts—having crunched boatloads of data from the Cultural Data Project and other sources—found that art museums, along with opera companies and symphony orchestras, have been the most successful in "digital engagement" with visitors. 

But some museums are taking the audience engagement challenge further. They're taking their museums on the road.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently looked at an exciting (and deceptively simple) new trend whereby museums install artwork at various spots throughout the community. One particularly successful case study is called Inside Out, the brainchild of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The program, which began in 2010, places 40 replicas of notable paintings throughout southeastern Michigan. Kathryn Diamond, director of community relations, says the program helps "people make a personal connection in a place familiar to them."

This approach makes sense on multiple levels. First off, individuals in traditionally underserved communities lack the resources or time to travel to a museum or even pay for admission. So the museum comes to them. Secondly, the underlying premise of the program calls for a subtle paradigm shift in how people consume art. Rather than viewing an ancient painting in a sterile gallery (again, nothing wrong with that), visitors can now view the work, say, in their neighborhood park or—we're not making this up—on the wall of a barbershop. This approach makes the art immediate, integrative, and relevant.

Lastly, as our imaginary conversation suggests, art consumption is generally viewed as an end point. Yet this approach frames art as a means to an end. In the case of Inside Out, communities have used the paintings as a springboard for walking and biking tours and open-air painting classes.

Needless to say, foundations are taking note. In June, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced a $2-million grant over three years to support the effort in Michigan and expand it to the Pérez Art Museum Miami, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Akron Art Museum.

Ms. Diamond sums up it up best, noting, "Using art to draw attention to community resources has been really profound."