About a year ago I read a blog post by Nina Simon reflecting on how important events were for driving visits in her museum. The museum has a different business model to most UK art galleries and museums (eg it charges for entry) so whilst I found her post interesting I didn’t see an immediate implication for art galleries and museums with free entry. But over the past year I’ve noticed more of more of the UK cultural venues I visit with my family are focusing increasingly using events to attract visits and so I’m beginning to wonder whether events-driven programmes deserve more consideration by art galleries and art museums.
Our local National Trust favourite property Fountains Abbey runs a varied programme of events from open-air theatre, to bird-watching tour or Santa’s grotto. For the past 5 years we’ve done Santa’s grotto in a variety of local museums from National Railway Museum, to Yorkshire Museum of Farming and Castle Howard. A Mothers’ Day programme at Baltic attracted our most recent family outing to that gallery. Last weekend we enjoyed our first visit to English Heritage’s Bolsover Castle attracted by its medieval jousting event (for my knight-crazy 5 year old).
The museums and heritage sector has definitely realized that events drive visits. Talking to Tony Butler, Director of Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL) a few years ago for a research project into business models he told me that six ‘event days’ account for over a third of MEAL’s annual visits and represent a substantial contribution to its financial position. But for art galleries and museums events tend to be a smaller part of both the programme and marketing strategy: often targeted more at sub-sections of the audience than as mass appeal draws.
In her original post, Nina observes that the events in her museum have a number of characteristics beyond being free that might account for their appeal:
- Timing – they happen in the early evening when the Museum is usually closed so are accessible to people who wouldn’t be able to attend during working hours.
- Sociability – these events have a different feel which is more informal, social (eg music, drinks).
So, if events have potential to drive visits what might be the implications?
- Events are often seen as secondary, additional activities by galleries and museums and consequently don’t benefit from the level of resources they need to realize their full potential. If you’re serious about doing events then they need to be clearly part of the programming team’s responsibilities.
- If entrance is already free, the other benefits of events have to be marketed to potential visitors. Of course this depends on who you are trying to attract, but f mass-appeal and/or new audiences are the target then you will need to create a great social experience. (Alternatively, if entrance is usually free – you could approach events on a charging or income generating basis?).
- In contrast with an exhibitions (which can last for 6-12 weeks) or a permanent collection display when the impetus to visit on a specific date means sometimes you don’t get round to it (or hence the last weekend spike in attendance for many exhibitions), an event is an ‘unmissable’ one-off.
Reflecting on this weekend’s event, I offer three final observations about making events work for galleries and museums:
1. Maximise the trading opportunities – English Heritage added a marquee shop selling knightly merchandise and even flags to wave during the jousting event to show your allegiance. Entrance was free to EH members which was a great incentive to join on the day, or (if you were already a member) to spend on day as entrance was ‘free’.
2. Include activities that encourage participation and socializing. My son Alex’s favourite parts of the day were the mass participation recreation of the Battle of Towton and impromptu sword fights with a variety of other mini-knights (whilst we compared knight-obsessed kid anecdotes and passed on tips of good local castles to visit with their parents).
3. Bring in the experts. The jousters, falconers, re-enacters etc weren’t English Heritage staff – they brought in events professionals. No doubt this eats into the profits but events don’t have to be about making a profit: the aim of the day you equally be about reaching new audiences (and we were first time visitors) or attract new members.
So, in summary, I’m interested to see whether events are going to become more significant within gallery programmes: perhaps it’s just because I’ve started looking but I think I’m seeing more and more galleries now featuring events, such as the birthday celebrations at The Hepworth Wakefield a few weeks ago. If they are then it’ll be interesting to see what this means for how they are resourced and driven from within the institution. As ever, I’d be interested to hear what you think – whether or not you already use events in this way or have decided not to for now.