To bring back visitors, museums are having to draw on their own creativity
By KATE SILVER | The Washington Post | Published: April 27, 2018
We’re standing in front of the painting "Black Cross, New Mexico" by Georgia O’Keeffe at the Art Institute of Chicago when our animated tour guide, Jessamyn Fitzpatrick, asks what O’Keeffe is known for. One woman in our group of eight says flowers. Another pipes up with the female anatomy. Fitzpatrick nods to both and smiles.
"She had over 2,000 paintings, and less than 10 percent were flowers," Fitzpatrick says. "The problem with that narrative is Georgia O’Keeffe was basically a pioneer of American modernism. I think her paintings are so much more multifaceted than people give her credit for."
The tour, dubbed "Badass B-----s," is run by a company called Museum Hack, and shares stories of female artists, muses and subjects. (Versions of the tour are also offered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Getty Center in Los Angeles.) Over the course of two hours, we hear about witches and their love of psychedelics; we view works dedicated to the African goddess Oshun, who has inspired the art of Beyonce; we peer into the dollhouse-like miniature rooms conceived by artist Narcissa Niblack Thorne; and we chew on the fact that works by women, historically, are largely underrepresented in art museums.
The tour, which costs $49 or $59 depending on the city, is a little bit irreverent and 100 percent relevant in this broader moment when the patriarchy is getting the side eye. It also speaks to the ways cultural institutions and tour outfits are tweaking their formulas to bring the here and now into ages-old institutions.
Museum Hack specializes in unconventional, interactive,story-driven sessions aimed at people who may or may not enjoy museums but are drawn to certain subjects. For Harry Potter fans, for instance, there’s "The Completely Unofficial and Definitely Unlicensed Boy Wizard Tour," offered in San Francisco and New York. (A warning to the shy: There are ice breakers and games on these tours.)
Ethan Angelica, director of creative and consulting at Museum Hack, uses terms such as "subversive" and "reverently irreverent" to describe the company’s approach to museum tours. He says that Museum Hack’s guides share insights -- sometimes salacious and scandalous -- that feel like secrets, even if they’re not.
"Because once you tell someone something that feels like maybe they shouldn’t necessarily know this information, even if it’s totally publicly available information, they immediately cannot keep that secret," Angelica says.
It’s one of the many antics museums and museum-centric businesses are using to challenge their stodgy, buttoned-up reputation and offer something more experiential. And, well, fun. Across the country, you can see a burst of creative approaches within these cultural institutions, all designed to draw in new audiences: yoga classes, pop-ups, custom beer, cat film festivals, nighttime parties with signature cocktails and DJs, dog-friendly days, scavenger hunts and more.
The American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan invites adults to unleash their inner Ben Stiller at the A Night at the Museum Sleepover for Grown-Ups. The events regularly sell out, despite the hefty fee of $350 per person ($300 for members), which includes a Champagne toast, buffet dinner, live jazz, flashlight tours, movies -- and the chance to wander around and commune one-on-one with Dum Dum (from "Night at the Museum," which is based on a night there).
"They love it and they act just like the kids, honest to God they do," says Brad Harris, the museum’s senior director of visitor services. Kids, too, have the chance to participate in sleepovers of their own ($145 per person, $135 for members) throughout the year. The museum began offering the sleepovers in 2006, when the film series premiered. This year, Harris says, the facility will welcome its 100,000th overnight guest.
Smaller museums can be especially scrappy in finding ways to connect with the community. One that has found remarkable success is California’s Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. Executive Director Nina Simon, who was hired in 2011, says that in the years following the global financial crisis, the facility was struggling.
"At the time, we thought it was financial trouble, but it turned out it was much deeper than that," Simon says. Museum attendance was at about 17,000 a year, and primarily made up of retirees and schoolchildren. Simon knew something had to change.
"We said, if we’re going to make this museum successful, if we’re going to make it meaningful in the community, we’ve got to increase the number of people we’re reaching and we have to diversify who they are," says Simon, who explores the concept of audience engagement and participation in her books "The Participatory Museum" and "The Art of Relevance," as well as on her blog, Museum 2.0. She says that the museum made changes in hiring and board recruitment practices, and invited the community in to help reshape the facility into a place that reflected and represented its people and their interests.
The impact was dramatic. Within three years, attendance tripled. Audiences of all backgrounds found ways to connect with museums as it presented exhibitions with the help of foster youth, migrant farmers, roller-derby girls, mushroom hunters, surfers and incarcerated artists, among others.
In September, the museum unveiled an adjoining plaza called Abbott Square, which includes an indoor public market and food hall with six restaurants and two bars (it’s managed by a partner/tenant, Abbott Square Market), along with an outdoor performance venue with live music, yoga and art events. The plaza serves as a kind of front porch to the museum, ushering visitors old and new.
"I always say we did not transform our museum by building a fancy building or by bringing in van Gogh," Simon says. "We changed our museum by reorienting on our community and really saying we exist to be of, by and for you, and to help build a stronger community."
It’s something that any museum, of any size, can work toward.