Reimagining Museums:
Reaching Out With Galleries Full of Fun

June 21, 2011 No Comments

Not long ago, the words, “We’re going to the museum” were often met with sighs of boredom. However, rather than be offended, museum directors took that dreaded image to heart and began to transform their museums into places that were not only educational but fun. Outreach programs have courted a wider range of guests who now view visits to museums with anticipation.  
As Executive Director for the Fort Wayne Museum of Art in Fort Wayne, Ind., Charles Shepard believed that a new welcoming look for the museum would inspire more people to come inside the doors.  The first changes appear-ed outside the museum with landscaping that made the building visually appealing. Inside renovation followed.  
“We wanted to appeal to the ‘normal’ people – not just art lovers,” Shepard noted.  “We completely changed our lobby replacing forbidding concrete floors with hardwood floors and comfortable furnishings. We wanted the lobby to be a cultural oasis.”
The Fort Wayne Museum also installed phone chargers and outlets so that people could come in and sit and charge their cell phones or laptops.  The lobby has Wi-Fi as well.  
“People do not have to pay to come in and sit in the lobby or browse our gift shop.  They can stay as long as they want and enjoy the atmosphere. We want people to feel welcome here.  Once they see that we want everyone to think of this museum as their own, they come back for exhibitions and events.”
Ticketing at the museum has changed as well. Now, tickets for exhibitions are sold at the front desk in the lobby allowing for visitors to see an exhibition without the hassle of advanced ticket purchases.
“Our entire goal is to let the visitor drive his or her experience,” explained Shepard, who is a former art history professor at Connecticut College and the University of Maine. “If it is a spur-of-the-moment wish to see an exhibition, we want them to be able to buy tickets. If they want to just come in and sit and read or charge their phones, we want to give them a place to do that.”
The flow of the physical buildings has been changed too. The square footage of the museum increased from 38,000 square feet to 48,000.  There is more area, which allows Shepard to rotate the art more often.  There are outdoor spaces for events too.  Shepard also conducts artists’ workshops, which teach the artists to be more accessible to the public.
“Sometimes artists are not the best at socialization, so we help them along.  Visitors respond to seeing the artist at his or her exhibit. It is an experience they remember, and it inspires them to come back and see more. I teach the artist workshop several times a year. The artists love it and they look forward to interacting with visitors, and that is a great thing.”
The outreach programs and renovations are reaching Indiana residents, and Shepard wants that trend to continue.  He estimates that only five to six percent of museum guests are part of the art crowd and the other 94 percent are potential art museum lovers.  Shepard has brought in exhibitions to attract this large segment of the population. One of the most popular exhibitions was a bicycle and a Skateboard show.
“We try to find art that will appeal to a vast majority of people.  We want to know what they are interested in and we want to show them how their lives can reflect art and how art reflects their lives.”
At the Cummer Museum of Art and gardens in Jacksonville, Fla., special free events such as quarterly Family Nights attract guests. The museum showcases diverse types of art for these events, giving the public direct contact with demonstrating visual artists, musicians, filmmakers, dancers, poets and other artists.  
“We also have hands-on activities for all visitors whether they are 1 or 100,” said Susan Gallo, director of Education. “We want to create a strong interpretive theme around an exhibition. For example, we had a World War II Posters exhibition, and for the community opening we had 1940s newsreel screenings, music by the U.S. Navy Band southeast, guests in costume, a cookbook cover with common WWII recipes and a greeting card collage project to send to current soldiers.  This event drew in more than 900 visitors and many were military families, ex-Rosie the Riveters and veterans. Quite an outreach.”
The museum, which welcomes about 109,000 visitors annually, is also using technology to bring the arts to the community and beyond.  
“With the opening of the Ralph H. and Constance I. Wark collection of Early Meissen Porcelain, we are launching our first podcast and app. The podcast features a discussion of the history of porcelain production in Europe, a story that is filled with intrigue and espionage, power and passion,” Gallo observed.  “The conversational style will engage visitors and invite them to take a closer look at the collection.  With the app, visitors will be able to download the app and preview the collection before their visit. “
The Cummer also highlights area artists in exhibitions and programming.  Their upcoming summer show celebrates the historic Riverside-Avondale neighborhoods that surround the Cummer. Visitors will have a chance to meet the artists who are helping to shape Riverside’s growing artistic culture.
“We are always adding to our programs,” Gallo noted. “We host seated Talks and Tea and Teen Night, which will give young people in our area a chance to meet and work with graphic artists. It’s a night for listening to music and enjoying a wonderful collaborative atmosphere with friends.”
As Chief Curator for the Wichita Museum of Art in Wichita, Kan., Stephen Gleissner understands the importance of reaching out to the public and breaking down barriers.  Gleissner works to make the museum a place that is welcoming and fun as well as educational.
“One of our most successful reach out programs is Final Fridays. Our visual arts galleries are open from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and our visitors can stroll through and appreciate the work that we have,” Gleissner explained.  “We have themed events as well, for instance we had students from Wichita State University, performing and playing instruments and then we had a salon discussion about the music.”
Gleissner also brings in exhibitions that represent a variety of art that is also new to the museum. This year, the museum welcomed The Great Garbo Portrait Photography exhibition as well as the South American Native Textiles exhibition.  
“We go out of our way to bring new, different and non-traditional exhibitions here. It is a way to bring in more people; a way to broaden our demographic. We received a tremendous gift from a museum patron.  With the money received, we now have Open Saturdays, which allows visitors to come to the museum for free.”
The New Orleans Museum of Art, or NOMA, is celebrating its 100th anniversary. The celebration began with a kick-off party that included the St. Augustine Marching 100 Band, which paraded to the museum and welcomed crowds who were treated to a day of public art performances by local ballet and opera and chorus companies.
“We always make the extra effort to reach out to the community,” said Museum Director Susan M. Taylor. “On the kick-off day, we hosted family art-making activities and guided walk-throughs of the art galleries. We made sure we had offerings for all ages. We also used this day to announce our expanded museum hours, new admission rates and new programming for Friday evenings which we call ‘Where Y’Art.’ ”
Where Y’Art – a play on the New Orleans saying “Where Y’At?” includes activities such as lectures, gallery talks by curators and artists’ events.  The museum also hosts film screenings, performing arts and theatre.
“Our goal is to bring people in and see how wonderful our museum is. We continually find new ways and new exhibitions and events to inspire people to come in and take a look. We have also seen a spike in attendance during our Friday night events, signaling that sometimes people need a reason to visit initially, like a special event. Hopefully, these visits will turn into repeat visits. There has also been an increase in membership sales during these events, so signs are positive that people are coming back again and again.”
As Executive Director for the Rockford Art Museum in Rockford, Ill., Linda Dennis understands the importance of promoting the museum to the community. To attract more visitors, Dennis offers a free public opening for each exhibition.  
“The free opening includes a gallery walk featuring the artist, the curator, the education director and the museum docent,” Dennis noted. “We want people to see that our museum is not only educational, but accessible as well. When they see the people behind the exhibition, it makes the museum more welcoming and a nice place to visit again and again.”
The museum, which hosts about 40,000 guests per year, uses traditional media and social media to reach the community.  
“The alternative approach with e-mail blasts, postings on Facebook and promotions to affinity groups seems to work for us and brings in visitors. We like to use grass roots systems of promotion, such as delivering information to local galleries, restaurants and other public facilities too. The grass roots system always gets the word out.” -

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