Nebraska museums experiment with different marketing strategies

A sign at the entrance of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha lets patrons know their visit is free of charge. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
The view of the Josyln's contemporary art exhibit. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
"Obstinance and Disapproval" by Neil Jenney is an example of the large, narrative canvases he created in the late 1960's, when many artists denounced the role of painting in the artistic world. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
"Das Reingold: New York Schism" by David Wojnarowicz. In addition to painting, Wojnarowicz was a photographer, writer, film maker, performance artist and AIDS activist. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
A sampling of the hundreds of pieces on display at the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
The Museum of Nebraska Art was dedicated and opened to the public in 1986. MONA houses Nebraska's official art collection. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
All of the works on display at the Museum of Nebraska Art are by artists who either lived in, or have strong ties to, Nebraska. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
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December 4, 2013 - 6:30am

Many Nebraska museums are taking unique approaches in their marketing strategy, trying to attract new patrons and grow their brand. But are those approaches successful?


At the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, contemporary art curator Karin Campbell described a piece currently on exhibit.

“This is a painting by Neil Jenney from 1969 entitled Threat and Sanctuary. [Jenney] uses sort of an intentionally rough brush stroke, his brush strokes look sort of hurried in a way. There’s almost a childlike quality to his painting,” Campbell said.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Threat and Sanctuary by Neil Jenney is currently on display at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha. Museum goers can view this and hundreds more paintings for free. The Joslyn and nearly half of American art museums don't charge admission fees.

Threat and Sanctuary is just one of the hundreds of pieces available for public viewing every day at the Joslyn, free of charge.

“When the Joslyn Museum opened in 1931, we were free. It was Sarah Joslyn’s intent for the Joslyn Art Museum to serve as many people as possible, and this museum was free for nearly 40 years,” said Jack Becker, the executive director of the Joslyn Art Museum.

Becker said the Joslyn started charging admission in the late 1960’s. In February of this year, the Joslyn returned to its “free admission policy.”

Becker said nearly half of all the nation’s art museums don’t charge for admission.

“The response has been positive. Anecdotally, people have been really supportive. People have said, ‘This is why I’m a member of the Joslyn. This is why I support the Joslyn,'” Becker said.

From June through August of this year, the first summer since moving to the free format, Becker said the Joslyn’s attendance numbers increased from about 4600 in 2012, to more than 10,000.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

A museum patron peruses the pieces on display at the Joslyn Art Museum. Since switching to the free admission format, attendance numbers at the Joslyn more than doubled this summer.

“Museums are like libraries, and I believe that art museums function that way and works of art are tools of lifelong learning. Just as we don’t want to pay to have access to a library book, I don’t think we should pay to have access to a work of art,” Becker explained.

In addition to offering free admission, the Joslyn also holds special art classes and hosts traveling exhibitions on occasion as a way to market the museum and increase attendance.

It’s a similar approach at the Museum of Nebraska Art, or MONA, located in Kearney.

“You have two kinds of people. People that are art lovers that travel, that go to museums, that are familiar with art. And then you have people that don’t have much of an association with art,” said Gina Garden, MONA's marketing director.

In order to attract the latter, Garden said MONA offers special tours led by trained individuals who can teach museum goers about the thousands of pieces in the permanent collection.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Like the Joslyn Art Museum and many other art museums, the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney does not charge an admission fee. MONA holds the official collection of the state of Nebraska. MONA's marketing director Gina Garden said the museum participated in a variety of marketing strategies aimed at fostering a love for the arts in children.

Garden said since MONA doesn’t charge admission, they don’t keep track of how many people come through the door. She said it’s hard to tell which marketing strategy benefits MONA the most.

However, Garden said one technique has a proven record of success—the special event.

MONA, like so many other museums, bases much of its marketing strategy around special events designed to boost patronage. Events like MONA’s biennial fundraiser, the Spirit of Celebration of Arts in the Heartland.

“We invite 54 artists to come in and bring art. It’s a three-day weekend where people can purchase whatever they want. We have a live and silent auction, a 'buy it now' option, and we set up a tent and bring in 450-500 people,” Garden said.

According to Garden, this single springtime event provides enough revenue to cover MONA’s operating costs for two years.

Similar special events are incorporated into marketing plans by museums of all different types, including the North Platte Area Children’s Museum, which recently hosted its annual membership drive.

“We actually used a live remote with one of the radio stations in town and our attendance tripled from last year’s event,” Heather Halligan said.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

The North Platte Area Children's Museum is the only museum of its kind within a 100-mile radius. However Heather Halligan, the museums's director, said they still need to employ creative marketing techniques to promote the museum. She said special events like movie nights, science events, and membership drives help drive attendance numbers.

Halligan is the executive director of the NPACM. Last year, she said the museum had around 11,000 visitors by December. This year, that number is down by about 400. However, Halligan said the museum didn’t have as many special events this year, which would account for that drop.

Since her facility is non-profit, Halligan said her marketing budget is very tight. She said while free platforms like social media and email are great, paid advertising on local radio stations is the best way to get people into the museum.

People like Terry Scoville, who brings his 4-year-old grandson, Trevor, to the North Platte Area Children’s Museum to play pirates.

“Where I have him so much, I’m always trying to think of something to do. And then I’ll see a program that’s coming up and I say, ‘Oh, we can go to the museum tomorrow,’ and that’s what we do,” Scoville said.

More people across the country are going to museums. According to the American Alliance of Museums, the average increase in museum attendance in 2012 was a little more than four percent, marking four straight years of increased attendance at American museums, even while the nation’s economy experienced historic setbacks.

So while many museums may focus on the past, it seems they’ll need to continue experimenting with unique marketing strategies to thrive into the future.

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