Salvador Dali was reviled by many and loved by many more." That was the opening line of a September 2004 New York Times preview piece of a Dali retrospective exhibit scheduled for February to May 2005 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
"I think that line showed, in a sense, what the issue was going to be," says Norman Keyes, the museum's director of media relations, citing the communications challenge facing the exhibition's organizers.
The museum needed to communicate that the Philadelphia show, the first full-scale Dali retrospective in the US in more than 60 years, would serve as a solid analysis and presentation of his work.
At the same time, Philadelphia tourism officials were eyeing the exhibition as a hook to generate revenue during a time of year when leisure travel to the city typically slows down.
Because press members, especially art critics, likely held preconceived notions about Dali, the organizers decided it was important to give them the opportunity to learn more about the artist's life - far in advance of the exhibition's opening.
In May 2004, tours were arranged to take journalists to Spain to explore Dali's home and creative inspirations. The organizers also hosted a September 2004 trip to the opening of the exhibition in Venice, the only other venue for the show.
The Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. (GPTMC) created a platform called Surreal Philadelphia to foster citywide promotion of the exhibition. Restaurants, for example, created Dali-themed menus, with such items as Surreal Meals and Dalinean Dream cocktails.
"We went out to restaurants and retail organizations to see how many windows could be made Dali-themed," says Butler. "We wanted to make sure that, for this period, Dali was everywhere watching you."
The museum also took advantage of 2004 being the centennial of the artist's birth. "It was important for us to stress the point that the culmination of that centennial celebration would be this major exhibition," Keyes explains.
All of the advance work paid off. The exhibition was a triumph among art critics.
"I think it was the groundwork we laid because journalists got to see him as an artist and got beyond the image of Dali as the promoter that he became later in his life," says Paula Butler, VP of PR for the GPTMC. "It changed opinions. I think it set the stage for the positive coverage it got from art critics later."
Press coverage started appearing in June 2004, eight months in advance of the exhibition. Once the doors opened, the exhibition sold out its run, with attendance calculated at more than 370,000 visitors, second only in popularity to the museum's Cezanne exhibition in the early 1990s.
More than 1,000 hotel and exhibition packages were sold online from the GPTMC website. Visitors who booked the Dali travel package spent on average $592 a day, compared with other package buyers, who spent $355 a day for the same period, Butler notes.
For future art exhibitions, the GPTMC plans to continue using coordinated PR campaigns that reach out to art, travel, and lifestyle media.
"For the travel press, we learned that a strong, city-related product is critical to getting that travel story," Butler says.
About 145 area shops, restaurants, and cultural institutions participated in Dali Deals, a promotion organized by the exhibition's corporate sponsor, Advanta, a credit-card company for small businesses. More than 90% of those establishments stated a desire to participate in future promotions.
PR team: Philadelphia Museum of Art and Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp.
Campaign: Surreal Philadelphia: Salvador Dali exhibition
Time frame: May 2004 to May 2005