And so, in this post, a few findings, and more questions.
Many museums, big and small, thrive on events. I had originally assumed that this phenomenon might affect smaller museums in smaller markets more than large urban institutions, but I've since learned from colleagues at big hitters like LACMA and the Dallas Museum of Art that the majority of their visitors attend through events. One director of a children's museum even told me that they "eventize" normal operations--calling a Saturday a "family festival" without changing the planned programming--to draw more people. At our museum, about 68% of casual visitors (non-school tours) attended through events this year.
This isn't true for every museum. There are still many museums in large tourist centers with a hefty one-time audience. Zoos, aquaria, science and children's museums boast a significant "anytime" audience of families who return again and again. But for art and history museums, especially outside the biggest tourism markets, I wouldn't be surprised if events drive the lion's share of attendance, period.
At our small museum, events have driven a huge increase in attendance, community partnerships, and media coverage. We're still crunching numbers for the close of the fiscal year, but our attendance has more than doubled from 17,349 last year to about 36,000 this year. The vast majority of that increase has come through attendance to new events.
These events don't just increase audience. This year, we produced our events--especially the 3rd Friday evening series--in partnership with over 700 artists and community organizations in Santa Cruz. Events enabled us to partner with diverse groups who brought in new audiences and programmatic opportunities. We turned a place where “nothing happens” into a place where something was often happening. We got media attention each time we hosted an event, and within a year, we were celebrated by the local weekly as “a major go-to hotspot… that keeps things fresh and fuels the creative fires of Santa Cruz.”
So why is this happening, and what does it mean? Here are three possibilities I'm toying with for why events are taking center stage at museums:
- Culturally, we are shifting to a more event-driven society. Recreational time is down, people are more scheduled than ever, and “casually” visiting a museum is irrelevant to many people, especially those who live outside large urban cultural centers. Festivals—whether of jazz, visual art, ethnic identity, or historic reenactment—are experiencing record attendance even as more permanent institutions that offer the same content are struggling. People want to come for the weekend, the moment, the event. (Note: this is a hypothesis with little data to back it up. Can you help with some concrete information to confirm or refute this idea?)
- It's less about the event than the timing. Audience behavior could be more driven by museum hours than by the type of activity offered. Events mostly happen in the evening or on weekends, outside of work time. The majority of our exhibition hours do not. Maybe if museums were open from 3-10pm instead of 10am-5pm, the attendance would be higher overall. However, it is worth noting that at the MAH, a Saturday without an event during daytime hours typically draws half as many visitors as a Saturday with even a very low-key drop-in program.
- Events generate media buzz and attention with greater frequency than exhibitions. The more events we do, the more we get known for events, and the more people attend during them. If society is more event-driven than ever, we have to give people explicit (and frequent) reasons to think of museums as an "anytime" experience, or they never will attend casually. This could be a worthwhile long play that introduces people to the value of a weekly "museum moment," or it could be an uphill battle against the reality of how and why people prefer to engage.