In Dallas, Igniting the Power of Art
Dallas Museum of Art hosts a "Late Night" at the museum---staying open till midnight---the third Friday of each month. Visitors participate in activities such as team competitions to design creations inspired by works of art in the museum’s collection, such as Francis Guy's "Winter Scene in Brooklyn" (pictured in the background). Photo courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art
A community leader recently described the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) as a “people’s museum”: extroverted, welcoming, and dedicated to its visitors. Naturally, her words were music to my ears. The DMA is a different place than it was a decade ago, when we, like so many other museums, detected a growing disconnect with our community and knew it was time for change. Today, eight years of visitor research have given us fresh ideas, new ways of working together, purposeful community partnerships, and a clear and useful understanding of how our visitors experience art.
With the museum planning, evaluation, and research firm Randi Korn & Associates, Inc., we developed studies that looked at visitors according to their preferences for connecting with art, instead of using a conventional demographic lens. Our aim was to create new opportunities for visitors to explore creativity in all its forms, not simply boost attendance or provide more amenities. We call our research-based understanding the Framework for Engaging with Art. We’ve written a book about our research and the dynamic, all-encompassing renewal of the DMA that it inspired: Ignite the Power of Art: Advancing Visitor Engagement in Museums, published today by the museum and distributed by Yale University Press.
What we’ve learned infuses everything we do at the DMA---from the way we greet people at the door, to the kinds of interpretive strategies we develop for our exhibitions, to the programs we provide. The result has led to the creation of new experimental initiatives at the museum, such as the 2009 launch of Wi-Fi-enabled smARTphone tours that provide supplemental information on key objects in the museum’s global collections. These tours allow visitors to gain new insight into the works in the galleries through a variety of perspectives and multidisciplinary opportunities, including audio commentaries by curators, preparators, and anthropologists; videos of the artistic process; and even interpretive responses by area students.
By sharing our story, I hope we’ll strike a chord with other art museums that are on their own journeys toward improving and enriching their visitors’ connections with art. As museums we should all be works in progress: comfortable with risk; alert to what succeeds, what fails, and what might be possible; and mindful that it’s about the art and the visitor.