ORGANIZATION CASE STUDY: MoMA relocation focuses on community commitment

The Museum of Modern Art's decision to redo its Manhattan digs created a monumental PR challenge. But the museum's temporary move to Queens has been a runaway success.

The Museum of Modern Art's decision to redo its Manhattan digs created a monumental PR challenge. But the museum's temporary move to Queens has been a runaway success.

How did the Museum of Modern Art transport one of the world's largest and most important collections of modern art to a temporary home in Queens last summer while a three-year, $800 million expansion and renovation project got under way at its Manhattan residence? Carefully and in stages. The museum's internal PR staff and Ruder Finn spent nearly two years developing a similar communications strategy to manage the move. "The communications objective is to keep the museum in the public eye during the building project, to attract new audiences in Queens, and to attract domestic and international tourists," says Ruth Kaplan, communications and marketing deputy director at the Museum of Modern Art in Queens - or MoMA QNS. "We're rolling the campaign out in stages." Prior to her February appointment at MoMA QNS, Kaplan worked at Ruder Finn for five years, where she played an integral part in plotting the strategy for the museum. Kaplan, who now reports to director Glenn Lowry, says that her department is an "extremely important aspect of the museum's priority," and that it is gratifying for her to see the project through from the client side. "Different things are emphasized at different stages," Kaplan says, "partly because it's impossible to absorb too many messages at the same time, but also because different things are available to be photographed and talked about at different times." 'A resource for the community' Renovation benefits transcend the extended perimeters of the new Manhattan building, scheduled to open in 2005 on the museum's 75th anniversary. Reciprocity is developing as MoMA QNS expands its audience base while drawing its original patrons from Manhattan. The museum's clout and power promote cultural and economic development, which helps local restaurants, other arts organizations, and, of course, MoMA QNS itself. It's clearly a win-win situation, and the effects will resonate beyond 2005. "We wanted to understand the community and be a part of it, not just arrive at the doorstep without any knowledge," Kaplan says. "We also want to be a resource for the community." And MoMA's commitment won't end when the renovation is complete. After the move back to Manhattan, the Queens building will continue to store parts of the permanent collection and serve as a conservation and research center. Kim Mitchell, communications director, says the museum is also considering the economic feasibility of continuing to exhibit in the space. Philippa Polskin, president of Ruder Finn's Arts and Communications Counselors Group, says, "Being part of the community is very important for institutions. Once it's loved by the community, it's a lot easier to make it resonate nationally and globally." "They've done an extraordinary job of reaching out and have really opened the door to all of their resources to everyone here in Queens," says Michael McSweeney, director of legislative and community affairs at LaGuardia Community College. "They offer their resources to our students and faculty in a proactive and generous manner. We're delighted they're there." Ruder Finn interviewed various members of the art community, politicians, and the general public before preparing a communications audit, which determined the strategy, audience, and key messages for the original relocation and the move back. Interestingly, the much-publicized June 23 procession - where more than 100 people carried reproductions of the museum's most famous works while spreading rose petals from the 53rd Street building over the Queensboro Bridge and up Queens Boulevard to the MoMA QNS building - was not part of the PR plan. Rather, it was a collaboration between curators and the Public Art Fund (itself an exhibit of sorts) staged by artist Francis Alys. "Because of the festive nature of the procession, it was picked up by the media, and it did benefit the communications effort," says Kaplan. PR strategy on display The first stage of the communications strategy focused on making sure people were aware of the move. "We explained what we were doing to different groups of journalists in different cities," Kaplan says. "New York press conferences were held in October 2001. Then we had briefings in London and Berlin in January 2002, and in Los Angeles earlier this year." The issue of transportation was addressed up front, and will continue to play a primary role throughout the campaign. "People need to know where we are and how to get there," says Kaplan. Maps play a big role (they are distributed in all materials), but marketing Queens as a destination is equally important. "We knew that MoMA QNS would be more interesting if we could work with other arts institutions in Long Island City to reinforce the idea that it was a cultural destination," says Katy McDonald, director of government and community relations. PS1 Contemporary Art Center has been a MoMA affiliate for several years, but the museum now works closely with other Queens organizations, such as Socrates Sculpture Park, the Museum for African Art, and the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum. McDonald was instrumental in developing alliances with the Long Island City Business Development Corporation, the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce, and the Queens Chamber of Commerce. One of the first relationships formed was with Artlink, a free weekend shuttle-bus service from Manhattan to Queens. Museum educators also lectured on MoMA history in local libraries to prepare the community. Partnerships are developing with 63 library branches, 65 schools and colleges, community groups, government, and even local restaurants. The second communications stage involved generating excitement about the Queens building (the former Swingline staple factory), which was renovated to accommodate the museum. "Hard-hat tours were given periodically, and we distributed images of the architectural model," Kaplan says. "We tended to take the media out on the subway so they would be familiar with the ease of getting there." When the building was completed, the focus shifted to the art itself. "Curators were made available for tours and interviews with art critics and TV and radio outlets," Kaplan says. Because the Queens exhibition space is smaller than the Manhattan facility, some of the collections are being deployed across different venues. "Works from the collection will go on view in Berlin and Houston, and the New York Botanical Gardens is displaying some of our sculptures," she continues. "Our film and media program is now at the Gramercy Theatre. We have to make sure our visitors are aware of what we were doing and that they understand the short-term and long-term aspects." A Matisse/Picasso show is a high-profile exhibition opening in February, and the museum is confident that its stature will build awareness and attract additional visitors. "This exhibit broke all attendance records in London at the Tate Modern earlier this year, and ours is the only American venue for the show," says Kaplan. If you build it.... About 1 million people have visited the museum this year. Kaplan says that number is on par with historical averages. "It's not up from what it was at 53rd Street, but it has been running approximately what we predicted. We're in a smaller facility, so we're not comparing like with like. We estimated 1,000-2,000 a day, and that's very much been holding." An unprecedented 19,000 people showed up for opening weekend. "It was a bit of an anomaly," Kaplan says. "There was a lot of promotion, press attention, and it was a free weekend." Kaplan says tourists still account for more than half of the audience. Local attendance is up - particularly in Queens and from the tri-state suburban population. "A lot of the PR campaign was concentrated in the New York area because we particularly wanted the five boroughs and the tri-state area to get our messages in light of the decline in tourism," Kaplan says. Over the next year, the staff will refine the communications plan for the new 53rd Street MoMA, and continue to build its audience base and reinforce its relationship with Queens. "Our job is to present our collection, but having all these new people come to Long Island City presents a great opportunity for the local community," says McDonald. "We go out and introduce ourselves to community leaders so that additional opportunities will arise with them, and so that they know how best to maximize those opportunities. We can't be successful in a vacuum." -------- MoMA QNS Deputy director for marketing and communications Ruth Kaplan Director of communications Kim Mitchell Senior publicist, film and media Paul Power Senior publicist Maile Rodriguez Publicity coordinator Daniela Carboneri Research assistant Kim Donica Press assistant Leah Talatinian Assistant to the deputy director Mary Anisi Communications consultant Marilena Balbi Outside agency Ruder Finn

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