Museums get into marketing BMA, Walters push upcoming exhibits

April 25, 1991|By Maria Mallory

If you haven't heard that Monet is coming to Baltimore or that a grand collection of Asian art has a new home here, you will.

The Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Gallery are touting their respective achievements in ways neither institution has ever done before. They're investing more money, more time and more creativity, and their target is you.

Breaking its tradition of low-key promotion through public service announcements, the BMA began last week the initial stages of its first-ever multimedia ad campaign to plug the exhibition of 32 paintings by 19th century French Impressionist Claude Monet that will be on view at the museum this fall.

Similarly, Hackerman House, the new Asian art museum of the Walters Art Gallery, will open next month in the wake of the broadest marketing campaign in the museum's history.

"You will see Hackerman House promotions till you are sick of us," promises Robert P. Bergman, the Walters' director.

It's no wonder the museums have turned up the marketing and advertising heat, observers say. Like nearly everyone else these days, Baltimore's premier art institutions are feeling the economic squeeze of the recession.

As consumers and corporations alike pinch pennies in these tough economic times, the nation's museums are venturing into formerly uncharted territory. They're becoming more "businesslike" in their operations, according to James G. Abruzzo, managing director with Kearney Executive Search.

"That means that classic business practices like direct marketing, public relations and image-building -- they are all part of the museum management category now," said Mr. Abruzzo, who analyzes non-profit organizations for the New York-based executive search and management consulting firm.

"[Museums] are starting to be more businesslike and more commercial," he added.

Using corporate sponsors and partnerships, the Baltimore museums are trying many of the typical get-the-word-out media: newspaper ads, billboards and public service announcements on radio stations. However, some of their latest tactics are a bit offbeat.

For instance, the BMA is planning a "cabby day," when area cab drivers will be invited to view the Monet exhibition in hopes that they, in turn, will relay the BMA's pitch to tourists riding in their cabs.

The Walters has arranged to put some 7,000 Hackerman House place mats in trays used at Harborplace fast-food restaurants, as a reminder to Inner Harbor tourists to make the trip north to the new museum.

Free-admission coupons for Hackerman House will be mailed along with the bills of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers during the next few weeks as part of a deal Walters managers have negotiated -- free of charge -- with the utility.

"We put in a discount coupon in our 'Energy News' [publication], and it goes to our residential customers" in over 900,000 households, said Francia F. Johannson, director of communications services at BG&E.

Both museums rely on corporate support. Hackerman House, the historic Charles Street home of the wealthy Walters family, was renovated with $7 million of corporate and private funds, Mr. Bergman said.

Fortunately for the museum, that money was collected in better days. "There's no way we could have gone out now and raised $7 million the way we did," Mr. Bergman said.

A $150,000 grant from the Maryland National Bank Exhibition Endowment Fund will help defray some of the cost of transporting and insuring the Monet paintings along the journey from their home at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, according to Daniel G. Finney, spokesman for MNC Financial Inc.

The grant is part of a $500,000 award given to the BMA three years ago by the MNC Financial Foundation, the independent, charitable arm of the regional banking company.

In addition, the BMA is counting on attracting Monet lovers from cities up and down the East Coast to help push ticket sales above the 250,000 total needed to break even on the project. And the museum has added $3 to its $3.50 adult admission price for the exhibition to help cover expenses of what Director Arnold Lehman calls "one of the most costly projects the museum has ever undertaken."

The "Monet at the BMA" marketing plan includes radio announcements that were aired for the first time last week on WJHU and WBJC radio stations, and ads that will begin in May on WBAL radio.

The museum also will run ads in a broader mix of Baltimore-Washington area newspapers than ever before. And as the Oct. 13 opening draws near, Monet-BMA promos will run in newspapers in York, Lancaster and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, as well as Richmond, Roanoke and Charlottesville in Virginia.

All in all, the museum is "taking a wider marketing scope and new outreach approaches this museum hasn't done before," said Marge A. Lee, BMA's public relations director who is overseeing the campaign.

The BMA began selling tickets for the event in February through Ticketron outlets across the country -- another first for the museum. While Ticketron tacks an additional $1.50 to $2 to the admission price, the museum box office will start issuing tickets June 1 with no processing fee added.

So far, Monet-lovers have picked up about 14,000 tickets, Mr. Lehman said. The museum is trying the new marketing tactics, he said, with just one goal in mind: "You will hear over and over again, 'Monet at the BMA.' "

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