Bonnie Pitman stepped down as the director of the Dallas Museum of Art in April for health reasons. Even as she did, studies that Pitman led at the DMA have begun to help museums modernize and expand the ways they present themselves. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports this may be Pitman’s most important legacy to the art world.
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When Bonnie Pitman came to the DMA in 2000 as deputy director, she quickly saw the museum was not drawing the numbers of people it should. She held public conversations with some 400 Dallasites of all walks of life to learn why, and she discovered, as she says, “The people who knew us loved us. The people who didn’t know us, didn’t know as at all.”
The DMA had no settled image or brand or appeal; there was no clear public awareness of just what it held, what it was about. So the DMA hired the research firm, Randi Korn & Associates. Museums often survey visitors for demographic data like income, age, media preferences. But Pitman was after very different information. Beginning in 2003, the firm interviewed nearly four thousand visitors to determine: Why do we go to museums?
Pitman: “Do you want to be involved in learning from scholars, creating works, responding to artists? What type of experience do you want to have?”
Of course, museum administrators already knew different visitors respond differently to art. It’s like church: We may be there together, but some of us pray silently, some of us gotta sing.
Thirty percent of museum visitors already know a lot about art but are keen to learn even more. The DMA calls them “the enthusiasts.” Others may not know much but enjoy just contemplating the art. They’re known as “observers,” and they make up 26 percent of attendees. Still others – energized by the museum experience – like to socialize or create their own art or music. They’re known as “participants,” and they’re around one-quarter of all museumgoers.
But with her data, Randi Korn found a fourth cluster, the smallest at only 20 percent but an important set (almost 32 percent of them are artists): They’re “the independents.” They may be confident with art, like the enthusiasts, but they prefer finding their own way around it.
Sitting in the Asian gallery at the Dallas Museum of Art, Lee Pelley responds to ten statements from the DMA survey about the ways people experience art.
Weeks: “I feel comfortable looking at most types of art.”
Weeks: “I like to know about the story portrayed in a work of art.”
Pelley: “Oh, yes.” [questions and answers continue under]
Her responses indicate she’s most like an enthusiast. But Pelley’s husband Richard responds to the same ten statements more like an independent.
Weeks: “I like to know about the story portrayed in a work of art.”
Weeks: “I like to be told a straightforward insight to help me know what the art is about.”
Richard: “Not so much.”
[questions and answers continue under]
‘I find some terms used in art museums difficult to understand,’ ‘I am emotionally affected by art’ – the ten statements are simple enough, but they’re the core of Pitman’s groundbreaking research. Her book, Ignite the Power of Art (co-written with Ellen Hirzy), was published in January by Yale University Press and has already been reprinted. Pitman won this year’s distinguished service award from the American Association of Museums — which cited her initiatives in enhancing visitors’ encounters with art. And in May, she spoke to the staff at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to help the Met update its thinking about audience approaches.
There’s been much talk in the museum world about Pitman’s research, says Maxell Anderson, the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He says by habit, museum directors often focus on the intentions of the artists, how to respect them, how to convey them. But then they stop there, and rarely reverse their thinking and try to understand the entire exhibition from a patron’s point of view.
Anderson: “So while all of us have done navel-gazing about our visitors, Bonnie has actually drilled into motivations of visitors. The hope is we’ll learn more about how to communicate effectively with visitors in explaining both the works in our collection and our mission and connect on levels that are perhaps more personal and less purely instructional. And that can build a better bond with visitors and make museums more relevant to their lives.”
Pitman says that as important as the study and its audience insights were, the crucial difference was acting on them. The museum staff began trying different approaches and tracking the results. This led to a number of the DMA’s efforts in recent years, some of which have been more successful than others: adding soundscapes to one exhibition (Coastlines), staging live performances in another (All the World’s a Stage), holding jazz concerts in the atrium, establishing the Center for Creative Connections, where patrons can explore a hands-on approach to art.
And there are even less academic labels on the walls.
One of the biggest challenges, Pitman says, remains how to present artworks for enthusiasts who like to learn everything — without frustrating the independents who may find all that extra information distracting. It’s one reason the DMA has pioneered online access and the use of smartphones.
Pitman: “Thank heavens for new technologies. If you go on the smartphone tours at the museum, you can stand in front of the Jackson Pollock, and you can look at a curator talking or you can hear a conservator. I mean, you can go as much as you want to in these different areas.”
Pitman insists, she’s not dumbing down the art. If anything, her approach complicates museum presentations. In designing exhibitions, curators have often thought in terms of ordinary observers or visitors much like themselves – most curators, naturally enough, are enthusiasts. Now they consider all the different ways a single exhibition can engage people — from galleries to lectures to performances to online. The audience clusters overlap and so can events. Research has shown that even something as casual and popular as Late Nights at the museum can include sophisticated lectures. It just depends on what’s offered and how it’s presented.
Pitman: “All of this set up an expectation with our community. You could come to the Dallas Museum of Art and feel more comfortable because we were consciously trying to think about you. It’s our mission to provide this huge range of experience.”
Since 2000, the DMA has acquired 3,500 new works, raised $187 million for its Campaign for a New Century (“The DMA: Now with Even More Art!”). But perhaps as significant, it doubled its attendance figures.
No longer the director of the DMA, Pitman continues to work on projects there. She’s guiding the museum’s new 400-page handbook, for instance. It’s set for release in February – with new information available online and in the galleries.
And yes, there’ll be an app for that.
All images courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art.