Timed tickets, free refreshments and the personal touch: these things can make or break an exhibit for the audience.

In the often abstruse, academic world of contemporary art, it is sometimes easy to forget the single most important element of an exhibition’s success: the viewer’s experience. Ann Landi from ARTnews spoke with some of the world’s top museums to ask how they keep their crowds happy.

Shoulder-to-shoulder crowds at the Louvre.

In her article, “How to Keep Museum-goers Happy“, Landi talks about how the success or failure of big-name exhibitions from the past couple decades often came down to whether or not the exhibition organisers were able to master the basic event logistics.

She highlights the 2010 to 2011 Tate Modern Gauguin retrospective that drew public ire on account of the crowds. The exhibition was heavily criticised online.

‘A good exhibition sadly marred by the gross overcrowding,’ read a typical response. ‘I shuffled along with so many others struggling to see past the backs of so many heads.’ The reactions of angry visitors led one art critic to dub the phenomenon ‘gallery rage’, and if that’s not quite as catchy as ‘road rage’, it may be endemic to our times.

To combat this “gallery rage,” museums have adopted a number of strategies to improve the audience’s experience. Below are just a few of the examples Landi provides in her article:

1. Limit the number of visitors per hour

While it may seem obvious, this can be a tricky rule to implement for museums. On the one hand, they have a public obligation to bring as many people as possible to their exhibitions; however, as many art lovers know, for viewing a work of art, the more intimate the experience the better. Landi notes that museum attendees were happy to wait in line if it meant a more relaxed tour through the gallery. For the Alexander McQueen retrospective at the Met, some visitors waited up to five hours for the show, yet  displayed “remarkable patience and perseverance”, according to Met senior vice president for external affairs Harold Holzer.

2. Timed ticketing

A corollary to restricting entry is to issue timed tickets. This way, museum visitors, especially tourists whose time is limited, can have an intimate gallery experience without sacrificing their whole day. Simon Blint, head of visitor services at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, learned this lesson the hard way when he was told off by a guest. As he told ARTnews,

The guy was incredibly frustrated, and if I recall correctly, he was there with his children. He told me I was an idiot for not doing timed ticketing. And he was right.

Timed ticketing tells the audience that not only do you care about their experience, as an institution you also know how to organise events professionally.

3. The personal touch makes the difference

Though it costs both money and personnel, having staff on hand to communicate with the crowds waiting in line makes a huge difference to how they see your museum or gallery. Landi discusses several examples in which personnel and customer services made the difference between a successful exhibition and a PR disaster.

For a 1990s Vermeer show, Deborah Ziska, chief of press and public information at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, was outside speaking to visitors in line. This way, guests to the museum knew that the staff cared about their experience and had the exhibition management under control. She also would relay this information to the press, letting those considering a trip to the museum know what to expect from the wait. Even smaller things like providing refreshments or keeping people informed about wait times at regular intervals make a big difference in how visitors see your organisation.

Landi’s fascinating article goes into far greater detail about the intricacies of crowd management for art events, giving lots of little tips that can be useful for any institution. Even for galleries or smaller art museums, visitor experience can ultimately make or break your reputation.

Do you have any practical tips for running an art space? Or any suggestions for problems specific to galleries or museums in Asia? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.


Related Topics: museum spaces, curatorial practice, art and the community

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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