Museums need Marketing

A number of years ago I was having dinner with Northwestern Marketing Professor Philip Kotler and he mentioned to me that he was working on a book on Museum Marketing with his brother Neil (Neil G. Kotler is the president of Kotler Museum and Cultural Marketing Consultants, Arlington, Virginia, and a former museum professional at the Smithsonian Institution.) The book which has had two editions is an excellent resource for Museums. See: Museum Marketing and Strategy: Designing Missions, Building Audiences, Generating Revenue and Resources

Dr. Kotler mention to me at the time that Museums are great institutions but in general, are lousy at marketing and he hoped the book would assist museum managers “to increase revenue while enhancing the customer experience”.
I was thinking of Dr. Kotler’s book when I read an article in our local paper, Attendance drop at National Gallery an “urgent” problem, director says .

In the article we learn that attendance at the National Gallery of Canada has been in decline for more than a decade, and the problem is “urgent.” Marc Mayer who is Director of the National Gallery states in the article that “It’s a big issue. “You want to be relevant, you want to have an audience, and the audience has been dwindling for over 15 years now. We’re not quite sure we know why. . . It’s really very important to me, and to most people who work here.”

National Gallery September 2011, compressed blog

Well as a public sector marketer and an “art lover” that got my attention. I love art museums and galleries and have visited many of them in North America, Africa, Australia, Asia and Europe.
The numbers for the current year at the National Gallery are projected to increase by 10 per cent or more from the previous year, but over the longer term the numbers are trending down, even as they’re trending up at prominent galleries elsewhere in Canada. “It’s increasing in cities like Paris, New York and London,” Mayer says, “but in many cities in North America the audience has been drifting away and we’d like to know why. There are all kinds of different theories.”

Ticket sales account for only a few percentage points of the gallery’s overall income, but any decline in that revenue stream exacerbates the overall problem, and since the 1990s the gallery’s average annual attendance has dropped by more than half. One passage in the gallery’s corporate plan for 2013-14 and beyond makes the situation clear: “The Gallery faces a challenging financial climate. The cost of doing business has increased substantially. Simultaneously, increased funding from traditional sources has been limited.”
Mayer says the gallery is asking itself many questions about attendance, including, “is it us, or is it art? Is art the handicap, or is it that the National Gallery’s intimidating? Is it not fun to come here? We need to find that out.”

“The audience has been drifting away, and we’d like to know why,” he said in the recent interview. “I don’t know that we have the time to figure out exactly what the problem is. We’ve got to start solving those problems that we think we have.”

What is interesting is that the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and the Musée des Beaux Arts in Montreal are enjoying steady gains in attendance year after year — the former rebuilding steadily after being closed for construction and the latter having doubled its annual attendance in less than a decade.
Yet the steady decline is unnervingly clear. In the 1990s the gallery routinely pulled in more than a half-million visitors per year; several years topping 600,000 or even 700,000. But the gallery hasn’t come close to a half-million per year since 2002, and the past two years (if projections for the current year hold) will be well under 300,000 visitors.

The gallery has also made substantial cuts to programming and staffing to get costs in line. (Note that the first cuts came in Marketing and Communications which in hindsight may have not been a good strategy)
“Museums and galleries have got to be the place, period, and art is only part of the equation,” says Stephen Borys, director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. “There’s no way we’ll survive if it’s just about the art. We try to be as accessible as possible, in that there are fabulous shows on, and we’ll continue to do that, but sometimes it’s not enough. The object is not always king: sometimes it’s the experience.”

Mayer states that “We need a reason for them to go in the door, and it might not be art for this person — but it could be. If you’ve got them in the building then you say, well, one more step and you are in the most extraordinary art collection in the country.

“We’re researching all kinds of data,” Mayer says. “We’re asking people why did you come, we’re asking people why they’re not coming . . . What is that we’re doing wrong? How can we improve the visitor experience?”
A weak spot in the gallery’s front is communications, a department that took big staff cuts. As a result, says Diana Nemiroff, a senior curator at the National Gallery for 15 years, the gallery’s communications effort “is not as good as it should be. “You could really question whether the gallery reaches its intended audience at all levels, and in as efficient a way as it could . . . You can’t go to an exhibition if you haven’t really heard anything about it,” Nemiroff says. “There’s a real communication problem.”

Jason St-Laurent, the curator at the artist-run SAW Gallery in Ottawa, says “we receive brochures from all the museums in Ottawa, except for one. The National Gallery’s material is nowhere to be found in any of the city’s galleries, which I find strange.

” Mayer acknowledges the issues with public outreach. “We’re figuring out that we’re not spending enough money on marketing. . . We’re figuring out how we can get better and market more intelligently.”
The gallery has also designated a one of their manager as “deputy director of institutional advancement and public engagement,” to co-ordinate the quest for more visitors.

As readers of my blog know I am an advocate for public sector marketing and am frustrated when I see public sector and non-profit organizations who should be adopting a strategic marketing approach fail to do so. In particular, Arts and Culture organizations, many of which could use marketing, see marketing as a fringe item (or fluff) and rarely have a prominent marketing function in their organization. They tend to see marketing as a commercial strategy so they tend to hire people who are experts in outreach and public engagement but rarely experts in marketing. In addition, many of them think marketing is promotion and have no idea or understanding of the marketing mix i.e. the 4 p’s.

So here is my advice to the National Gallery or any Museum experiencing a decreasing demand for their product, particularly those institutions going through a downward spiral over a long period of time. You clearly need a comprehensive marketing strategy. And don’t confuse a marketing strategy with a communications or outreach strategy. Both are important but marketing deals with all 4 p’s i.e. price, product, place and promotion and all 4 of these components of the marketing mix need to be examined.

Finally, museums that are experiencing declines in revenues and attendance need to:
• Define the exchange process between a museum’s offerings and consumer value
• Differentiate and communicate its unique value in a competitive marketplace
• Find, create, and retain consumers and convert visitors to members and members to volunteers and donors
• Plan strategically and maximize marketing’s value and
• Develop a consumer-centered museum


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2 Replies to “Museums need Marketing”

  1. Good article Jim! I too saw the article a few days ago and cringed when I read the quote “I don’t know that we have the time to figure out exactly what the problem is. We’ve got to start solving those problems that we think we have.” The need for marketing seems paramount to a successful outcome. Here’s hoping the Gallery does take the time to identify its problem(s) and create a great marketing solution. Cheers, Diane

  2. I fully agree with you Jim. The gallery needs to invest in a proper marketing strategy and team. It’s a classic case of organizations cutting the marketing function and then wondering why revenues are declining and client engagement is faltering. Organizations need to constantly adjust and transform to remain relevant. Marketing writ large is one of the essential tools in that process. Let’s hope the Art Gallery makes the right call.

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