Special Programming:
Success Stories from the Nation’s Museums

Though the definition of a successful special program might differ from museum to museum, the consensus among museum professionals is offering such programming is a win-win. Members have another reason to visit and experience the museum. And the museum can reach new audiences and attract new members.

Free Market Response

It is no surprise that the always-free admission is a big draw at the Baltimore Museum of Art in Baltimore, Md. Also a big hit with museumgoers is its Free Family Sundays, said Lauren Haney, manager of family learning. It’s a drop-in art-making program, led by art teacher Marge Anderson, which fosters multigenerational interaction.

The museum provides all the materials and the drop-in aspect makes it easy for families to put it on their radar screen of regular Sunday activities. What’s more, whether it is a painting or a clay activity, the art project is based on a work of art that is in the Baltimore Museum of Art. “Marge is a former school teacher and she gets how to teach visual art. She gives each child individual attention,” said Haney, “and helps families work together as a team to complete the project.” When the museum held its Edgar Allan Poe: A Baltimore Icon exhibition in late 2009 and early 2010, Preston Bautista, director of public programs, partnered with the 48 Hour Film Project for a two-night screening event of movies by local filmmakers inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. “That event brought in 700 people. It packed the theater,” said Bautista. “In these days, when things are difficult financially, cross-promotion and collaborations help bring in new audiences.”
Tailoring the promotion to the event’s target audience of 25- to 34-year-olds also helped make it a success, he said. In addition to traditional print advertising, the museum also made use of Web advertising and Facebook. “What works and what we’re finding is how important word of mouth is,” said Bautista. “The filmmakers themselves became a network and brought people to the screening.”
It’s a given that not all events go as planned. “We’ve had a few hiccups for weather reasons,” said Haney. “No program has been a total lemon.”
And Bautista said he was most surprised by the unanticipated popularity of a panel discussion with psychologists on loneliness the museum hosted during the Poe exhibit. “It got a lot of press coverage. We filled the auditorium. It’s a very current topic with the new ways people socialize,” he speculated.

Make it Annual, Make it All Ages

One way to increase attendance for a special program is have it the same time every year. The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore employs this strategy for its events and makes them even more memorable for their whimsy. The Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race is its most popular event. It’s an eight-hour, 15-mile race around the city of amateur-built mobile sculptures, held on the first Saturday in May for the past 12 years.
“We try hard to not make things too age specific at the museum. We try to push the boundaries with what is art, and the Kinetic Sculpture Race is definitely an all-ages event,” said Felice Cleveland, education director.
It’s not about coming in first place either, she said. The grand prize is “The Grand Mediocre Award” for the sculpture pilots that finish in middle place. There’s even an award for the team that has the best sock monkey on board their sculpture.
“It’s a very long and silly day,” Cleveland said.
Another anticipated annual event is Sock Monkey Saturday, a sock-monkey-making event held each December during the holiday shopping season and attended by adults and children alike. “It’s a respite from commercialism,” said Cleveland of its popularity.
The only events the American Visionary Art Museum tailors specifically for an age group, Cleveland said, is the summer camp for middle school-age youngsters, though it will recommend craft activities for certain ages if, for example, there are beads that might be a choking hazard for little ones.
One of the secrets to the museum’s event success sounds like a visionary mantra. “I don’t believe in failure,” said Cleveland. “It’s more lessons learned. Sometimes it rains. For us, we have a small staff, so we are learning to get the word out and get people in the habit of knowing when our events are.”

That Hard-to-Reach Demographic

Being on a university campus does have its demographic advantages, when your target audience is 18- to 24-year-olds, said Carolina Eichinger, interim public program coordinator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History in Boulder, Colo.
Advance notice, a partnership with Mission Wolf, and word-of-mouth buzz about live wolves on campus helped bring about 800 people (college students, schoolchildren and the general public) to the museum, who then learned about its Month of the Wolf programs in April, Eichinger said.
“Our target audience is one of the hardest. …Definitely getting input from the demographic about our ideas is important,” she said. The museum hands out evaluation sheets with a list of possible events. Students are asked to check boxes on the forms next to events they would be interested in attending.
“We’re doing a program on beer later this year (based on evaluation results),” she said. The beer event, which is currently being planned for late fall 2010, will feature a beer historian, a botanist that works in the beer industry, and a big name in home brewing.
Another reason why she thinks the museum attracts college students and families from the community is that it never charges for events. Families with kids, for example, frequent its drop-in education workshops because they are convenient and free.
One such drop-in workshop surprised Eichinger, though. It was a workshop on Navajo weaving, where attendees learned how to weave and in the process made an iPod pouch. “It ended up being all college kids,” she said.

Community Minded

The Michigan State University Museum straddles serving the university community and the East Lansing area. Reaching out beyond the campus means partnering to make programs successful.
Julie Avery, museum educator and curator of rural life and culture, targets its behind-the-scenes programs and tours of special collections on groups and individuals “deeply involved” in a particular art form. For example for a quilting program, she said she reached out to quilters in the community as well as regional quilting guilds. “They get to see unique and unusual objects that they never would,” she explains, “and learn from knowledgeable curators and makers about creating them, techniques and storage, cleaning and care.”
When it comes to children, being on a university campus adds to the educational atmosphere. Now in its sixth year, a weeklong summer program on fossils is the museum’s most popular. “This program always fills up and has gotten to the stage where we do not need to advertise,” said Judy Smyth, education program manager. “We believe our success with this program is due to the combination of science-based learning on a college campus, its location in a natural science museum, the educational skills of the program leader, and parents’ desire for their children to have solid educational opportunities.”

Finding the Kid in Us All

Just because the Stepping Stones Museum for Children, in Norwalk, Conn., is a children’s museum doesn’t mean adults aren’t a factor. Its live music performance might lure parents to bring their kids to hear music from Trinidad and Tobago, especially if the parents came from that area, but the whole family ends up having fun, said Shari Abelson, public programs manager.
“All of our programs are special,” she said. Ones that kids enjoy the most are the ones that they can participate in, whether it’s an art or cooking program or a professional performance. “They (kids) like to be part of the experience, either by touching, being active, or performing.”
Being able to tailor a program to the audience on the fly is key, she said. “You might have a 3 year old that can sit for 45 minutes and enjoy themselves. And an 8 year old that can’t sit still after 10 minutes,” she said.
Most of the performers she has brought in have been able to do this easily and effortlessly. A jazz performer might do a rendition of “Wheels on the Bus” to keep the really little ones interested, for example. When performers or presenters can’t offer a little bit to keep all ages engaged, she said, is when some audience members lose interest.

Be the Place To Be

The California African American Museum has developed a following for its free Target Sunday Series, held the first Sunday of the month and sponsored by Target, said Woody Schofield, deputy director of operations and special programs. “It allows us to expand our audience,” he said. “A lot of people will come who are not members. …It’s given us a platform to build on membership and give us exposure to new audiences.”
After five years of the Target Sunday Series, people hear about it through word of mouth and the museum also does direct mailings, press releases and lists it on newspaper calendar listings. “People like to get out and this is all free,” he explained. “Once they find something they enjoy, they will come back.”
Performances range from dance, music, theater and spoken word. The partnership and cross-promotion aspect is also helpful. For example, singers from the Los Angeles Opera came to promote its Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
To keep kids interested at the Target Sunday Series, the museum holds workshops, led by the same educator, that tie into the museum’s exhibits. “The kids actually want to be there,” says Schofield, “And they enjoy the environment and being creative.”
What’s more, the workshops for kids are free and the exhibits are open during the event and are always free.
The only times events have not met expectations, he said, are when something hasn’t been marketed correctly. “Either there wasn’t enough notice, or the word hasn’t gotten out about it,” he said. “It takes some effort. You can’t just put it in the quarterly newsletter and expect people to show up.” –

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