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Seducing the Future of Fine Arts: Getting the Next Generations into the Museum Experience

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Alex Gofman, Marco Bevolo, and Tönis Mets take a scientific approach to figuring out what gets people to visit a museum, and show how RDE, through its disciplined structure, affords actionable insights that might help.

Introduction

In a world devoted to preserving the past, museums and art exhibitions are looking to future innovation to draw their visitors. They may sometimes present ‘old’, but they’re tuned into ‘new’. It well known that visitors should not only engage with the exhibition physically but also cerebrally [1]. For example, some museums, particularly ecomuseums, successfully attract new visitors emphasizing social responsibilities [2]. Even beyond pure intellectual dimensions, socially engaged museums with a crucial connection to their neighborhood are proliferating. Look at the Nederlandse Fotomuseum in Rotterdam [3]. Here, the people of the city are present in the collection with their photo albums of great aesthetic and historical value. The history of immigration of Rotterdam is narrated by the museum as an integrated experience engine, pumping cultural cohesion at the very heart of the urban experience.

Museums are vital in our societies as an embodiment of national spirit [4] and as triggering elements within the urban experience at its best [5]. In the last decades, creative leaders like Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Richard Meier envisioned the city for what we know it today, reflected deeply not only about the relevance of museums as man-made “objects” and architectural programs but also on the necessity to re-think museums as experience engines or even media companies [4], to support their wider socio-cultural function as exemplified above. Central to all this reflection is the new role of the museum visitor, increasingly analyzed by means of consumer research and enticed by marketing communication techniques [6].

No doubt about it — maintaining and increasing museum and exhibition attendance is critical for art establishments. Museums try hard to keep current patrons happy: this leads to extremely sophisticated forms of advanced marketing, sometimes beyond luxury marketing itself [3]. In the fine arts sector, new challenges require the skillful management of local networks of sponsors and “friends of the museum” as exemplified in the best practice of the Van Abbemuseum of Eindhoven, The Netherlands. This avantgarde institution developed its “Promotors” association as a true spider in the web of regional business and corporate prestige [3]. But then, there is more to connect culture and commerce: in the Netherlands again, the title of Marketing Man of the Year 2008 was granted to the Director of the Rijksmuseum, Jan Willem Sieburg, for his ability to manage the unique event exhibitions like Damien Hirst’s “For the love of God”, manage unique venues like the Rijksmuseum “branch pavillon” at Schiphol Airpor of Amsterdam, launch branded line extensions, use viral marketing, particularly important for younger patrons[7], and to implement pricing policies of the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam [3, 4]. In the year of the Great Economic Crisis, the Rijksmusum experienced one its best years ever. This is not an exception, according to business literature. Although even in tough times people care about arts, the issue of attracting new and repeat patrons is highly important for museums. There, offering free entry to the youth up to 19 years old, as done by the Rijksmuseum, [4] or engaging in important programs of “open nights” with free access to everybody in the evening hours, as done by the Van Abbemuseum, can help to get more people “testing your product”. However, the question arises: how do you ensure a sustainable turnover by means of healthy streams of returning customers and enough revenues to sustain operations?

Providing a sound, scientific answer to this last question will be more and more a priority in tomorrow’s cultural sector. Budget cuts put more pressure on museums to increase admission fees, and in turn could decrease attendance. Although people often turn to art objects in times of stress, they normally don't regard art and museums as essential purchases [8]. Many consumers are cutting their discretionary expenses, and the price of museum admission could play a larger role in the decision to attend. On the other hand, recent (2009) research projects in the US and UK gave an astonishing results: a majority of respondents identified the social value of art communities an element of such relevance that –in their statistically measure view—taxpayer money should be used to invest into their sustenance through the crisis [3]. In spite of this exceptional cache within society, the arts are often deemed "nonessential”: re-connecting museums as “buildings” and “commercial enterprises” to fine arts as the cultural heart of our societies requires marketing talent beyond average and above standard marketing formulas [3].

Winning the “battle of the mind” to convert citizens into museum visitors is, however, more than purely a marketing challenge. It is a key issue of longer term relevance for the museum sector and the fine arts themselves, in the wider perspective of their relevance to “the rest of us” [3]. This is particularly noticeable in the recent developments of art foundations connected to luxury and fashion enterprises [3]. Both for brand marketing purposes as well as for genuine ambition by tycoons and corporate boardrooms, art foundations like Fondazione Prada in Milan or private museums like Palazzo Grassi in Venice consolidated a natural connection between the top of society, in economic and lifestyle terms, and the fine arts [3, 6]. Although financially supported by foundations, corporations and wealthy individuals, this perceived non-essential nature puts arts in danger [9]. Most of all, this situation reverts the business leverage to the sponsoring parties, hence leading to a distortion in the public co-creation of what is the art of our times: this is the ultimate outcome of fine art shows that are designed to please the ego of the sponsor, much more than to analyze and respond to the fundamental questions of our times [3]. That perception of non-essentialness has led to art's simultaneous devaluation (as "recreational") and overvaluation (as transcendent). There are some remedies suggested in form of shifting patronage of arts to colleges and universities and linking in public sponsorship of arts [9].

Luckily, the visionary power of fine arts goes beyond the pure display of “superluxury objects for the super-rich” [3]. The key asset in preserving and nurturing such power lies in the ability of museums and cultural institutions to re-connect to people and attract them back into their hallways and grand rooms. The ambition of this following reflection is to offer a first step in this process of democratic participation by offering museum management with a set of data and analytical insights designed to address the challenge of attracting the next generation to their worlds, to bring them further in the understanding of our times and in the construction of our next world.

So what gets people to go to museums?

There has been a lot of research around the preferences of museum visitors. For example, Kinghorn and Willis[10] found that visitors have a preference for visiting a museum with another individual(s). People want to do something when they go to the museum. Just what, however, is not really well understood. There is really little knowledge regarding whether what museums offer in the way of services and social opportunities has any effect on either attendance or the appropriate admission price [11].

We did the research in this article to find out how to motivate young people to attend exhibitions. There’s a world of young people out there who could be and should be interested in the arts. How do we get to them? How do we create for the future the social education that we had when we were growing up?

The devil is always in the specifics, and it is to the specifics that we now turn. We want to know, quite simply, what works? What is the impact of different features, layouts, emotional benefits and available services on the young people’s desire to attend the exhibition (question 1); and continuing our line of research into psychological economics, what is the fair admission price?

The second question in this experiment looks at the relation between what the museum offers in terms of experience, and the price of admission the respondents are willing to pay for admission. In a sense, it is a classical value / price question for services delivered; this time, however, with cultural, emotional, and aesthetic undercurrents. It appears once again crucial to attempt a conversion of the civic passion demonstrated by US and UK qualified respondents in the aforementioned statistic experiment on the future of fine arts [3], with the experience machine approach of those museums managed as urban branding tools. A new balance must be possible, and participation of the public in the form of ticket purchase seems a key enabler in this process.

Why not just to ask people these questions as it is done in thousands of focus groups conducted annually around the world? We have alluded to this problem above in a number of discussions of methods. Consumers frequently cannot articulate exactly what they want or need. There is a whole literature on the shortcomings of research methods to get to the ‘real’ or at least the ‘truly useful’ answer. Here is a short summary of the arguments:

How to understand people’s minds in an actionable way

Millett [12] criticizes some methods of obtaining consumer preferences, pointing to the problem that consumers frequently cannot articulate exactly what they need, want, or like if asked directly. Agreeing with such arguments, Riquelme [13] and Hauser [14] point out that it is very difficult for consumers to articulate their needs and desires. Researchers must use other means to understand their motivations.

Some arguments, such as presented in Kiley [15], suggest that focus groups could not provide reliable understanding of consumer preferences. Krieger [16] points to a solution for this problem—presenting consumers with a set of experimentally designed prototypes. Research shown in Moskowitz, H., S. Porretta, and M. Silcher, [17] and further developed by Gofman [18], [6] proves that it is much easier for consumer to choose a preferred option from a set of prototypes.

The experiment described in this paper utilizes a modified conjoint analysis approach—Rule Developing Experimentation (RDE) introduced in Selling Blue Elephants [19] and further developed by Gofman[18, 20]. One of the key advantages of RDE is that it utilizes individual experimental designs based on Isomorphic Permuted Experimental Designs (IPED) methodology [18, 21]. A radically wider variability of combinations of the elements afforded by IPED in RDE (as compared to traditional conjoint analysis approaches) leads to more reliable results that are less biased, allows for identification of pattern-based segments and resolves other statistical limitations of conjoint analysis. This type of experimentation with the consumer preferences proved to have multiple advantages vs. direct questioning traditionally employed by market research [17].

Consumers are not all created the same. People’s preferences may differ substantially. Most traditional approaches cluster people based on some demographic or purchase behavior criteria. A more effective approach for design and development divides people based on their mind-sets (patterns of their individual utilities). People in the same mind-set segment like the same elements allowing optimizing the exhibition description for each segment. This approach proved to be quite robust in many dozens of case histories [3, 6, 22-34]

About the museum experiment

To explore what would trigger the interest of young people to attend an exhibition, we partnered with a premier panel provider Peanuts Labs (http://www.peanutlabs.com) specializing in research among mobile young people around the world who are world attuned to social networks. For this project, we surveyed a total of 432 young people in the US and UK (teens to 35 years old) across income categories. We presented the respondents with experimentally designed vignettes describing different scenarios about art exhibitions and asked them about their interest in attending such exhibitions, and relative price they feel is fair to pay for the admission. This article will show you how straightforward it can be to research both what is interesting and what is worth paying for, in the same study, with the same individuals.

We grouped the descriptions of the exhibitions into six silos: museum services, topic of exhibition, type of visit, time of visit, social opportunities and purpose. Each silo, in turn, comprised six different messages describing diverse sets of situations. For each test concept, we asked two questions: (Q1) How interested would you be to attend THIS exhibition? (1 = Not interested at all ... 9 = Highly interested) and (Q2) relative price people are willing to pay for the admission (outside the scope of this article).

What gets people to attend an exhibition?

For the rating question 1, the additive constant is the general propensity of the respondent to attend an exhibition in absence of any elements (a general interest in attending an exhibition). The individual impacts show additional probability that respondents would attend an exhibition if the element is shown. As usual, the total probability is calculated as the sum of the constant and impacts of the elements shown.

Let’s look at the results in Table 1. We see the results for the total panel, and for two mind-set segments that we generated using the same types of approaches as we have throughout this book. That is, we looked at the model relating the elements to the 9-point rating scale, and clustered together individuals with similar patterns of elements. These are people who we believe to think alike, at least for museum exhibitions. They may be totally different on many other things, including lifestyle, age, and so forth.

When we began this investigation into exhibitions at museums, we didn’t have solid data on which to develop a hypothesis. Of course, we did the study because we knew that museums were in trouble. And our data suggests that with the young and mobile people we studied with our IdeaMap.Net tool, the basic interest in museum exhibits is simply not there.

The general interest to attend the exhibition is not very high, as unfortunately could be expected with the young and mobile people. Fewer than one third of the respondents would be interested in attending an exhibition, at least as a baseline. And, unfortunately, the news is not great if we treat everyone the same. We could get a mere 5-6% more with the best of our messages:

-The museum setting offers a snack bar/restaurant with a really good choice of food (+6)),

-The museum setting is designed with YOU in mind -- lots of space to hang out with friends or be alone (+5)).

Table 1. What drives people’s interest in attending an exhibition (propensity to attend) and the ‘relative price’ they are willing to pay. Segment 1 (S1) “Fun for me with my friends”; Segment 2 (S2) “Interactive”.


Element

Interest in attending

Relative Price vs. a movie ticket

Tot

S1

S2

Tot

S1

S2


Additive Constant

28

21

35

75

72

78


Museum services







A5

The museum setting offers a snack bar/restaurant with a really good choice of food

6

9

4

5

8

3

A6

The museum setting is designed with YOU in mind -- lots of space to hang out with friends or be alone

5

7

3

5

7

4

A3

The exhibition features a place for you to chat freely with friends after the visit

3

6

1

3

5

2

A2

A modern exhibition setup specifically designed for enjoyment by young people

2

6

-1

3

4

1

A4

The exhibition encourages open conversations - not the stifling, traditional 'quiet' setting

1

2

0

1

1

1

A1

A traditional museum exhibition setup

0

1

-1

0

0

-1


Topics







B6

Feature - famous people memorabilia collection

4

5

2

4

7

2

B4

Feature - a medley collection of cool exhibits from different genres

2

5

0

4

5

3

B5

Feature - photo collection

2

4

0

0

0

-1

B1

Feature - classic art collection

-1

0

-3

-2

-1

-3

B3

Feature - pop-art collection

-1

2

-4

-1

2

-3

B2

Feature - modern art collection

-2

2

-6

-2

2

-5


Type of visit







C5

Not just attend ... be a part of an interactive adventure

4

2

6

5

2

7

C1

Attend ... on your own

1

-2

3

0

0

0

C2

Attend ... with your friends

1

2

1

2

1

2

C4

Attend ... with a private group tour

1

0

1

2

1

3

C3

Attend ... with a scheduled group tour

-2

-4

-1

-1

-3

1

C6

Attend ... on a school field trip

-3

-5

-1

-3

-4

-2


Time of visit







D6

Sensitive to YOU ... Enjoy as a special event ... closed to the general public

3

6

1

5

6

4

D1

Sensitive to YOU ... Enjoy on a weekday evening

1

4

-2

2

3

1

D3

Sensitive to YOU ... Enjoy on a school break

1

2

0

0

1

0

D4

Sensitive to YOU ... Enjoy on a weekend evening

0

3

-3

1

2

1

D5

Sensitive to YOU ... Enjoy during a weekend daytime

0

3

-2

1

1

1

D2

Sensitive to YOU ... Enjoy during workdays

-1

3

-4

-1

0

-2


Social opportunities







E1

A good place to get together with your friends

3

3

3

1

1

2

E2

A good place to meet new people

2

3

0

1

1

1

E3

A good place to get away from peer pressure

1

2

1

1

2

1

E4

A good place to be 'alone in a crowd'

0

0

0

1

1

2

E5

A good place to observe different people

0

0

0

0

-1

2

E6

A good place to be able to start a conversation with a stranger

0

0

0

-1

-1

-1


Purpose







F1

See something new

3

5

1

3

3

3

F5

Become a more rounded person

3

5

1

2

2

2

F2

Just have fun

2

4

0

3

5

1

F3

Do something with your friends

2

6

-1

2

4

1

F4

Do something to brag about

1

3

0

1

3

1

F6

Just because you're interested in art

0

2

-1

0

2

-1

So now we know that nothing works well, in general, among the 432 respondents in younger set, at least from the elements we thought would work. What about segments? Based on what we observe, we (really the museum director!) is looking for one of two things; both would be wonderful:

  1. Segmentation with elements that are ‘grand slams’. That is, do we find that segmentation simply uncovers a field, showing that there are opposite mind-sets out in the world? Get to the right mind-set and you have it made. This is the ideal. Unfortunately, it’s not the case.
  2. More likely, segmentation exists, but the two segments are both moderate. There are no grand slams. There are just simply better targets, with more homogeneous minds. This is the case for museums, as we expect it is for a lot of social and arts topics, where emotion doesn’t run high. Art is not like politics or like education, where there are strong emotions.
  3. So with that caveat in mind, let’s look at our two segments, divided by their interest in attending an art exposition
  4. Turn first to Segment 1 (47% of the respondents), who we call the “Shared Fun Seekers”. This group is not generally inclined to attend an exhibition without additional motivational messages (the constant is a low +21). The segment does not care much about the way the visit is organized: all the elements in the “Type of the Visit” silo are neutral or slightly negative. Interestingly, they are negative to the idea of visiting a museum on a school field trip (-5). Possibly, this could be explained by memories of less than engaging teachers during school days. Social opportunities are not high on their priority list either (the elements are neutral for that silo). They just want to do something with their friends, see something new, and become a more rounded persons. There are many messages to get to these people; none massively strong, but at least coherent, so that they tell a story:

    -More services: The museum setting offers a snack bar/restaurant with a really good choice of food (+9) and The museum setting is designed with YOU in mind -- lots of space to hang out with friends or be alone (+7)

    -A bit of exclusivity: Sensitive to YOU ... Enjoy as a special event ... closed to the general public” adds (+6)

    -Different topics: Feature - a medley collection of cool exhibits from different genres” and “Feature - famous people memorabilia collection” (+5)

  5. Now let’s turn to Segment 2 (53% of the respondents), which we call “Interactive Experience Seekers”. These people show higher basic inclination to attend an exhibition (about 35% of people in it are ready to attend). But who are these people? Now that we know they’re more predisposed to go, how do we get them? Or can we? Segment 2 is an enigma. Yes, they are basically more interested, but they’re not very interested in particulars, except one: “Not just attend ... be a part of an interactive adventure” (+6 points). Could it be that these are the result of years of computer games?

Summing up

According to Richard Meier [5], the design of a museum is an experience of extraordinary creative quality for an architect. The challenge is, how do you transfer this sublime experience to prospective visitors? All in all, attracting young people to attend an exhibition is not an easy task, as one has to deal with their existing preferences and must try to find a right combination of messages to increase the probability they will attend an exhibition. RDE, through its disciplined structure, affords actionable insights that might help even in difficult cases.

Acknowledgments

Tõnis Mets acknowledges the support offered by the Estonian Ministry of Education’s project SF 0180037s08.

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