DALLAS — “Hello. You can definitely take a picture if you want.”
That’s how a security guard named Gary Mathis greeted this reporter on a recent visit to the design galleries at the Dallas Museum of Art. Before long, he was directing my attention to a chair made entirely of stuffed pandas by Fernando and Humberto Campana. “They just had a show in Oklahoma,” he said.
This friendly engagement is more than run-of-the-mill Texas hospitality. Since instituting free admission and a free membership program in January, the DMA has made a concerted effort to become more welcoming to first-time visitors. (The DMA began charging admission in 2001.) “The staff is going through a culture change in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish,” DMA director Maxwell Anderson told ARTINFO in an interview.
As part of that culture change, guards have ditched formal uniforms for laid back khaki pants and button-down shirts. They’ve also received training on how to greet newcomers. “We used to be more focused on getting people not to touch the paintings,” another guard told me. “Now, it’s more about being the kind of person who you can come up to and ask for more information.”
With the help of DMA Friends, the free membership program, the museum can keep track of how well this push for accessibility is working. “We know the zip codes of new members, and we have a map that updates in real time showing where they live,” Anderson said. “We can track how we are doing in matching the demographics of the metropolitan area. I don’t want everyone joining from one zip code.”
Since instituting the new program on January 21, the museum has signed up over 6,880 new “friends” — a rate of 84 people per day. Over 90 percent were previously not affiliated with any DMA membership program. “We are seeing an influx from low income areas that are close to the museum, as well as from people north of the city,” Anderson said.
But the membership program is designed to do more than simply lure locals through the door. It also seeks to gather information about their visiting habits once they get there. Members are encouraged to track their visits by scanning a card at various checkpoints throughout the museum or texting a specialized code to a museum phone number upon entering a particular gallery. (In an effort to appeal to the broadest possible audience, the DMA decided against using QR codes, which have become popular interactive tools at museums across the country. “Not everyone has an iPhone,” explained Anderson.)
By scanning their membership cards or texting the museum, visitors accrue points that can earn them perks like access to special exhibitions or free parking. Plus, with increased knowledge of their whereabouts, the museum can offer them enhanced services. “In real time, if we notice a lot of friends have checked in at the pre-Columbian galleries, we can text them and say, ‘Would you like a tour?’” Anderson suggested.
In turn, the DMA Friends program offers the museum an unprecedented amount of information about its audience and their viewing habits — data which could come in handy when pitching to advertisers. (If all of this sounds too Big Brother for you, Anderson reiterated that the program is entirely voluntary.)
Chances are the DMA won’t be the only institution with this kind of interactive membership program for long. Anderson has teamed up with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Denver Art Museum, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to apply for a federal grant that would enable them to test the waters of free admission and explore experimental membership initiatives. “All over the country,” Anderson said, “there has been a lot of interest.”