The Art of PR

Museums are ramping up their communications efforts to reach out to loyal visitors and new audiences

Museums are ramping up their communications efforts to reach out to loyal visitors and new audiences

According to the official Boston Web site, 12 million visitors travel to Beantown each year. The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston would like to remind those tourists that they house a collection of 450,000 objects from all over the world in their galleries. Surely, there's something that they'd like to see. 

"The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is a world-class art institution," notes Dawn Griffin, director of PR and communications strategy for MFA, via email. "In regard to tourists, our strategy is to raise awareness of the Museum's encyclopedic collection, which ranges from masterpieces by Monet to one of the finest collections of ancient Egyptian art outside of Egypt."

To corral some of those tourists into the museum (about 1 million people visit per year), they've hired Martha Davis, manager of tourist marketing.

"A person might just handle PR or advertising and those efforts are directed at a vast audience," says Davis. "My audience is a small segment."

A member of the broad communications team, Davis' job is to work with hotels, government agencies like the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, and to use various networking tactics to get the word out to tourists.

"Part of it is just trying to keep up with the behavior patterns of people," Davis adds. "We find that some make their decisions before they leave [home] and some when they land."

With their priceless artifacts and highbrow reputations, many don't think of the PR needs of museums. But communications departments at the nation's art institutions are working hard to gain exposure for their organizations and its exhibitions. And reviews in the arts pages aren't the only goal; rather it's about widening their scope to gain traction with the largest possible audience.

"Every single museum is [looking] to expand [its] audiences," says Erin Hogan, public affairs director at The Art Institute of Chicago. "The people interested in art will remain largely the same. We're trying to reach beyond that core to make what we offer more accessible."

The Art Institute has recently employed online press kits to promote its next big exhibit, Cézanne to Picasso; it was ranked the #1 museum for children by Child magazine, which helps populate their family programming; and it targets travel writers for stories like "What to do in 48 hours in Chicago."

"We not only have to work with local media, but with national and international media," says Chai Lee, associate director of public affairs at the museum. "And all of the guidebooks that are updated once per year, which a lot of tourists refer to when they get to the city."

In a major cultural center like New York, the PR work doesn't slow down.

"New York City is a huge gateway to the US for visitors," says Patrick Milliman, director of communications and marketing at the Morgan Library & Museum. "There's simply no other city in the country that has this concentration of first-rate cultural institutions. Although that means a lot of competition, you get a lot of people coming here looking for that kind of experience."

Milliman conducts media outreach to all of the standard outlets and has a special relationship with NYC & Co, an organization that conducts its own outreach overseas, promoting New York's attractions.

Moreover, the nearly century-old museum reopened eight months ago after an eight-year renovation project that nearly doubled the gallery space and added amenities like new dining areas.  The PR team now works to highlight these features and emphasize the experience of visiting.

"These kinds of things add incremental revenue above admission," says Milliman. "[And it] extends the stay time for a guest, so there's value there. [Adults] spend $12 for admission, visit the galleries, and maybe eat here."

Museums represent so many niche interests that sometimes expanding an audience means diving deeper into smaller pools.  The communications department at The Art Institute of Chicago works on behalf of 10 individual curatorial departments covering everything from 20th century paintings to Chinese bronzes, each with different contacts and different targets.

Libby Garrison, PR manager for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is gearing up for its major exhibit for the year, Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson, on view from September 8, 2007 through February 3, 2008. Eliasson, an Icelandic artist, has achieved notoriety in Europe, but this is his first full-scale exhibit in the US.

Garrison will be in New York in March with the artist and a curator for a media event that she hopes will get them into national feature stories.

"To excite the media, we offer our director and curator to introduce the artist and talk about the importance and relevance of the exhibition," Garrison says via email. "The artist then speaks and shows slides of his/her work which is great background information and a great press hook. The media have face time with the artist and can ask any burning questions."

While old-fashioned face time is an indispensable tool, SFMOMA relies on multimedia resources to teach audiences about modern and contemporary art. Many museums are still trying to navigate all that the Internet and other new technologies have to offer.

"It means that all of the material is out there in the world and we have to direct people to it," says Hogan. "For not-for-profits, [there is] some catching up to do."

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