Many art museum directors emphasize the importance of art museums being audience-centered (Black, 2005). Similarly, to cater to audiences, public engagement needs to be a core function among art museums (Weiss, 2016). There is a trio of metrics to make the most impact on visitors, which includes the number of museum members, marketability of exhibits, and overall attendance (Weiss, 2016). All three must be high to keep visitor retention rates up, especially since there has been a shift away from collection building in the past few years. Instead, art museums have moved to more public programming initiatives. Art museums that have found a balance of these two important aspects by incorporating direct engagement with art exhibits have seen an increase in visitor attention (Black, 2005).
Public programming can include exhibitions, publications, lectures, workshops, films, and performances, as long as it presents and interprets works of art and expands public understanding (Association of Art Museum Directors, 2011). Museums could even present programs where works of art go on sale to the public. An interpretive approach includes making use of visitor’s knowledge and interests, using all the senses, using questioning, and having a variety through structure and organization (Black, 2005). The Museum of Modern Art in New York is one of the most visited museums in the world with over 7 million visitors. One reason it is so successful is because of its focus on arts education within its programming (Discovery, 2019).
Public Programming at the Allentown Art Museum in Allentown, PA
On November 11th, 2020 I was given the opportunity to speak with Ms. Lovell who is the Director of Public Engagement at the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania, who stressed her passion and the importance of public engagement within the art museum community. Ms. Lovell started her career in the fashion merchandising and marketing industry, which led her to higher education as a Professor of Merchandising. While in this position she worked for the student gallery at her college, which led to an interest in art museum management. She later obtained a position at the Allentown Art Museum when the museum was owned by the Pennsylvania Council. In this position, she oversaw the art museum residencies. She now holds the position of Director of Public Engagement, which she has held for the past two years.
The role of public engagement directors varies depending on the size of the museum. For Ms. Lovell, her job includes overseeing educational resources and programming for visitors ranging from pre-kindergarten to adult. She strives to make connections between the public and the museum by breaking down barriers of entry into the Allentown Art Museum. Ms. Lovell broke down some of the most popular public programming events for the museum, which include:
- Dynamic Conversation Series: The museum hosts lectures, artists, and scholars to talk about exhibition topics within the museum. This is driven towards an adult and higher education audience. Recently a scholar from Lehigh spoke to visitors about a protest art exhibition and how it relates to activism. This is a way to engage audiences in tough topics.
- Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration: On MLK Day, the museum hosted a program around MLK and helped the community by providing educational resources on King’s work. It is important to include diverse exhibits within programming to bring everyone together through art.
- Discover Art Program: The museum brings fourth-grade students to the facility and takes them on a tour to view the artwork. The tour guides will touch on vocabulary and language to provide an educational experience. After, the children are able to create a piece of artwork based on their experience or the theme of the day. This program serves over 3,000 students per year.
- Costuming Exhibit: The museum hosted a programming event centered around a popular costuming exhibit. There was a line of about 600 visitors outside of the museum.
- Art Care: The museum hosts events specifically for residents in the Lehigh Valley with Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Through this event, many participants are touched by the artwork and share cherished memories.
By talking with Ms. Lovell, I was able to see the clear passion she had for her work. She is extremely thankful to be able to work in the art industry in the Lehigh Valley, specifically within the aesthetically pleasing museum environment. Exhibits are constantly changing, which allows the museum to inspire and connect with so many visitors annually through diverse programming. Public programming is the most effective way to bring a community together through art.
Public Programming at the Museum of Art and Design in New York City
Unique programming is key to stand out from the competition. The Museum of Art and Design, also known as MAD, in New York City has implemented a few unique programming activities to benefit the community.
- Artist Studios: The Artists Studios program invites visitors to view and ask questions about works in progress of artists and designers. Artist residents can take part in their creative practice while participating in public programming. This program offers a way for the museum to give back to the community and share art-making in a live process, which most museums don’t do.
- Summer Internships for High School Students: Most high school students haven’t been exposed to art or cultural institutions, so this program invites 15 to 18 students to participate in art museum management. Students can meet all departments of the museum and learn what it is like to be a museum professional. Many participants even go on to have great careers.
- Title 1 School Programming: New York City has some of the most underprivileged schools in the country, so it is important for MAD to give back to their community. Many public school systems don’t have art programs, so the museum brings art into their school to educate and inspire young artists.
“AAM: Learn: Art Education, Programs + Events, Things To Do in Allentown.” Allentown Art Museum, www.allentownartmuseum.org/experience/.
Association of Art Museum Directors. “Professional Practices in Art Museums.” Association of Art Museum Directors, 2011. aamd.org/sites/default/files/document/2011ProfessionalPracitiesinArtMuseums.pdf.
Black, Graham. The Engaging Museum: Developing Museums for Visitor Involvement. Routledge, 2010. https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.muhlenberg.idm.oclc.org/lib/muhlenberg/detail.action?docID=1075158.
Weiss, Dan. “What Makes a Museum Successful?” Yale Insights, 3 Aug. 2016, insights.som.yale.edu/insights/what-makes-museum-successful.
Discovery, RSM. “Ranking The World’s Most Admired Art Museums, And What Big Business Can Learn From Them.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 19 Mar. 2019, www.forbes.com/sites/rsmdiscovery/2017/10/30/ranking-the-worlds-most-admired-art-museums-and-what-big-business-can-learn-from-them/.