Market research and BMA's future Art: The museum's study of its audience takes on greater importance now that the search is on for a new director.

March 23, 1997|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF WRITER

In Sunday's Arts section, an incorrect photo was used. Here is a photo of James S. Riepe, member of the Baltimore Art Museum board.

The Sun regrets the errors.

For more than a year, the Baltimore Museum of Art has been asking members and outsiders what attracts them to the institution and what keeps them away. Now, as the museum begins its search for a new director to replace Arnold Lehman, the answers will have an extra resonance.

Before beginning the search, the museum's board of trustees is waiting for the results of a $75,000 study of BMA audiences that is scheduled to be completed in two weeks. Commissioned by a museum committee that includes trustees and former trustees, the study was initially intended to guide museum administrators and staff as they develop new programs aimed at better satisfying museum members and drawing new, more diverse audiences.


But now, museum trustees are hoping that the market research also will provide valuable insights into what kind of director would be the best choice to lead the BMA into the next century.

"We believe there are a lot of people out there who might be interested in coming to the museum more frequently if we thought a little more about their needs," says Constance Caplan, chairwoman of the board. "We are going to definitely use those results as we start to interview people, because we want to hire someone who feels the same excitement about the possibilities out there."

A solid foundation

In September, when Lehman begins his new job as director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, he will leave behind a healthy museum. During Lehman's 18-year tenure, the BMA more than doubled in size and attendance, and its endowment increased from $1.5 million to $48.5 million. So, board members are looking for someone who can build upon a solid foundation.

"We have a successful, financially stable institution, and that means we don't have to look for a turnaround person or someone who can rescue it," says James S. Riepe, a board member and former board chairman.

But he adds: "We are looking for someone to take the museum up to another level. They are going to need intellectual horsepower on the artistic side, but they are going to have to deal with the government, the public; be an effective fund-raiser; and continue the outreach that the museum has already begun."

And many trustees are looking to the marketing survey to help them define what direction the growth will take.

"The research enables us to understand and better serve our current museum patrons as well as attract new ones, and that information helps us to select a director who can deliver to those audiences," says board vice president Marcellus Alexander, search committee member and general manager of WJZ-TV.

BMA trustees hope the study, which involved focus groups as well as 700 telephone-survey calls, will provide information about what kinds of programs -- from children's events on Saturdays to lecture series -- are most enjoyed by museum-goers.

"The BMA faces similar challenges to those faced by other museums that have very rich collections, but that are located in aging cities: They are seeing their audiences move farther out from the city center and are seeing a change in demographics. We have to attract a much more diverse audience," says Caplan, who heads the search team.

The trustees are also interested in what constitutes a successful trip to the museum. "The nature of the experience that people have during a visit is one they don't forget," says Caplan. Subsequently, the study aims to discover both what attracts and discourages visitors.

Focus group complaints

Though the results haven't been compiled, some complaints about the museum-going experience that were made in the focus groups include:

There aren't enough parking spaces.

The museum is too quiet and is unwelcoming to visitors with children.

There aren't enough seats in museum galleries.

The entrance is difficult to spot.

The museum plans to consider these issues, particularly complaints about parking and the museum entrance. However, some trustees add, simply because a point is made in a focus group or telephone survey doesn't mean that it becomes the priority of the museum.

Nor do they expect the market survey to identify every problem faced by the museum.

"I don't believe there's a silver bullet there. What those surveys are useful for is reflecting what the market is like out there," says Riepe, managing director of investment firm T. Rowe Price Associates. "We know that getting your constituency's attention and exposing them to the art is a big challenge. But by definition, the studies are going to help us at the margins of our audiences -- we aren't a museum thrashing around looking for our place in life."

Nonetheless, marketing surveys -- long used by businesses -- can be helpful to cultural institutions, Caplan says. "The trustees are going to have to be able to tell potential candidates what we want them to do."

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