A Fresh Start for the New Orleans Museum of Art

Katherine Jackson

Museums have always been interested in appealing to the public and serving the community. The museum’s role as servant to society is apparent in the development of a code of ethics by museum associations and is included in most museums’ mission statements.[1] The museum’s service to the community usually involves educational programs and attempts through innovative exhibits to appeal to untapped groups within the museum’s public.[2] Equally important, museums must also recognize that their community is not static. As demographics change museums must update all aspects of their presentation. They must redefine their target market and redesign their marketing efforts.[3] Today, one of the most important communities to the museum is the family. This new generation of parents has new priorities and specific concerns in relation to the role of museums within their community.[4] How museums appeal and their responsibility to this new family market has also changed. Their community affects the individual family and the changes that occur in their surroundings have an impact on their lives. As a result, museums must be sensitive to the social and political shifts of its audience. Museums need to use events in the community and their environment to attract their changing public and its concerns.[5]

Making the changes needed to address new markets and create new marketing strategies is often difficult and lengthy for an established museum.[6] However, the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) has a unique opportunity in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (Aug. 2006) to make these changes. The devastation of the hurricane has created a clear break in the development and marketing of the museum. In addition, increased competition from other area museums is forcing NOMA to make changes quickly to insure long term funding and growth. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, NOMA had a steady visitor attendance of about eight hundred a day.[7] However, since Katrina, other key museums in New Orleans such as Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the Contemporary Art Center have doubled their attendance levels. NOMA has struggled in promoting itself to and attracting new audiences.[8]

The changes needed to curb market and potential revenue losses are not just confined to the introduction of a new work or new exhibit within the museum. To insure change, NOMA must recognize and redefine its target market. It must also attract this new market to the museum by reaching out from its traditional role of isolated elitism (both ideologically and physically) into cultural centers through satellite exhibitions. While NOMA has been slower to react to the community’s needs, other areas of the art community have remained vibrant and have successfully appealed to new markets. These satellite exhibitions should be designed to improve community relations and, specifically in the wake of the devastation of New Orleans, provide interactive events for families to heal.

This paper explores opportunities available to NOMA and how to target new markets. First, though, is a general discussion on target markets, museum assets and museum characteristics (location and style). The new target market for art museums is the family market. This market values the learning process over competition (the hallmark of the previous family generation) and is genuinely interested in learning about each other while learning about art.[9]

To take advantage of and cater to this familial shift, a museum must first look at what it can offer. Harold and Susan Skramstad state in “Dreaming the Museum” that the main assets of any museum are their collection and stories.[10] The narrative created by the paintings and the act of storytelling is the most significant attribute in encouraging interest in the work.

William S. Hendon in “Analyzing the Art Museum” claims that traditionally, the storytelling of the artwork consisted of the history of its registry. However by revisiting the emotional aspects of Narrative and storytelling, we can interest and involve more people.]11] Barbara Czarniawska in her discussion of the importance of “narrative” suggests that storytelling and narration can be used to create an open atmosphere or ambiguity. This atmosphere can be used to stimulate participation and discussion within viewers and listeners.[12] By capturing the emotion and story behind the piece of art the works become more human and thus more relatable to a non-art educated audience.[13]

There are also many additional advantages to using narrative in the exhibition of artists’ work. The opportunities for the viewers to respond and give their opinions to the artists allow for a sense that real people author the work. A collaborative environment suggested by Peter Welsh provides a venue for the artist or speaker to control the structure of the dialogue created by the pieces.[14] Skramstad, in “Dreaming the Museum” indicates importance of personal narrative in exhibition, “If you have a person’s story it can’t be wrong. Exhibits are about weaving together these stories.” In addition by the artist defending their own work it takes the responsibility of political implications of the work off the museum.[15]

The museum can also create a successful relationship with the changing viewer by sustaining a benefiting relationship with their collection and using it in collaboration with narrative. The American Association of Museums states that museums are a servant of society and are dedicated to appreciating the common environment of society.[16] In addition, museums are viewed as “keepers of precious things/ ideas.” If one focuses on the museum as a house of ideas then they can be relatable to a public of metamorphasizing values and conceptions. Elements of constructivist learning are relevant in relating narrative exhibitions to a diverse population. These elements consist of a connection to the familiar and an association with a place. The museum is suggested to exhibit “the known” and the reaching out of the museum and traditional art world to showcase the “ordinary”. By showcasing the “ordinary” in a familiar narrative setting the museum can be more relatable to the general public. The rise in museum-to-museum collaborations and locally relevant exhibitions supports the importance of these principles and their success.

After identifying the market and reviewing potential assets, one must address the physical qualities of an art museum. In addition one must evaluate the ability of the museum to reach out and attract the new family audiences, based on its location and building character.

The original art museums in the United States are suggested by Hendon in “Analyzing the Art Museum”, to stand as isolated institutions. They exist as a separate “Art World” and assume a status of an “Ancient House”.[17] To support this presence, older American museums are built in Greco-Roman style to command respect. This status of the museum was assumed to create a sense of pride and cultural community in the environment. However, this architecture in the modern world has its disadvantages. The exterior in addition to pride also presents a vision of intimidation. This intimidation, Hendon suggests, scares off potential new visitors. In contrast to the traditional isolation of the museum, he argues that museums should be placed in the “Clustering of Cultural activities.” For example, the art museum should be placed along side shopping centers and other points of consumer interest.[18]

Neil Kotler supports Hendon’s locational suggestion by claiming that audiences want a social recreational and participatory environment. Kotler wants to see museums as part of a “Cultural Mosaic”. He further argues that the advancement in a connection between museums and the leisure market place would be beneficial. Kotler proposes his concept through the concept of the “Wow” museum. He states, that the “Wow” museum will satisfy the public need for a social, participatory and eventful environment. The museum will be a combination of recreational and entertainment elements that will create a social combination of popular and informal culture. The theme-park environment of the museum would be accessible and desirable to all audiences.[19]

The observations made in “The Audience for American Art Museums” further support these arguments, by identifying why people do not go to the museum. Shuster identifies that the majority of “non-visitors” claim that they don’t have enough time to go to the museum.]20] However, Hendon argues that polls show that non-visitors do have enough time to go shopping.[21] As a result, if one locates the museum next to the premier destination for most families then people are bound to stumble into the museum on their way out of the mall. The second most replied response of non-visitors identified by Shuster was that people claimed the museum was too far away.[22] This observation also supports Hendon’s argument of putting museums closer to existing cultural centers.[23] The location of a museum in a cultural or consumer center allows for a more diverse visitor demographic. The location allows for advertisement to all individuals, not just their loyal audience and thus is essential in changing the image and expanding the fan base of the museum.

Rebecca Zelermyer in “Gallery Management” suggests that in addition to the location and character of the Museum, to attract market the museum must also offer a variety of art and a non-pertinacious attitude, combined with invitations and brochures. As a result more people will be encouraged to attend events and the museum will gain more attention. A potential visitor is not likely to return to the museum if they do not feel intelligent enough to admire the art. The variety of art allows for an appeal to all types of individuals. One visitor may be taken with sculpture while another with drawings and as a result variety in a museum’s collection is essential to a wider visitor interest.

In addition to the attractiveness of the exhibition to viewers the fiscal concerns must be addressed. Zelermyer gives advice on propositions for the economics of art shows.[24] In a group show (similar to the one I suggest below), there are advantages (although costly) for the museum paying for the total exhibition. This is beneficial because due to the artist’s “guest status” a gesture of goodwill is instilled through an offer of full payment and may make the new artists look favorably on the museum and thus create an agreement.[25] The option of benefiting from group shows are a definite element to be considered when reaching out to new audiences and increasing museum revenue.

Finally, the staff of the museum is essential to the development and growth of the museum. The staff is also responsible for existing ideas, new ideas and its changing image. The organization of the museum and the positions that would be affected in developing a new exhibition or an attitude in relating to a new public and community must also be examined before any recommendations can be made on targeting and attracting the family market. Hendon identifies the main positions held at most art museums. There is always a director and in some cases there is an assistant art director, there are curators and Educational directors. There may also be Community correspondents and marketing agents. However, the most important role is the volunteers that work in the museum. The volunteers such as docents and receptionists advertise for new members to the museum and allow for money saving on routine tasks.[26] In addition, docents and receptionists are able to spend the most time with visitors and have the most potential to establish a personal bond.

The role of the staff and its involvement and relationship with the community is essential to the success of the museum. Andrea Fraser states, “The challenge is to understand the relationship between kinds of recent development in contemporary art…and the institutional development.”[27] Is the answer critical, symbiotic or parasitic? Sarah Cook in “Beyond the Box” suggests that the answer is for the museum to make a site-specific commitment to their neighborhood and the citizen’s life.[28] Martin Feldstein in The Economics of Art Museums claims that museums should meet the demands of the community. Their goal is to present art and artists that are relatable and exciting to everyday viewers. The people should be looked at as “citizens” not consumers. He promotes that exhibitions and markets come together and support the effort to reach out and bring in new audiences. The museum should assume a pro-active role.[29] This establishes the question of what should be the role of the staff, to retain intellectual elitism or adhere to more involvement from the mainstream public to sustain its existence.

The New Orleans Museum of Art is designed in the traditional museum architecture of Greco Roman described previously by Hendon.[30] In addition, the museum is in an isolated location. The museum is located in New Orleans City Park, which is approximately a 20-minute drive from the flourishing “art district” located near Julia Street in the center of the city.[31] This distance from new emerging galleries supports the elitist and isolationist attitude suggested by Hendon. However, most importantly the isolation of the museum removes it from the path of tourists visiting the city and the special events hosted by the centralized galleries in the art district annually.

The New Orleans Museum of Art suffered six million dollars worth of damage during Hurricane Katrina (August 2006). The majority of the twentieth century and late nineteenth century Permanent Collection was untouched. The museum’s location in a highly elevated part of the city spared it, despite the flooding in the surrounding area. However, damage and surrounding flooding delayed reopening. NOMA was the last major art museum of the area to open its doors, on March 3, 2006, fully six months after the storm.

The reopening of the museum was followed by an event “The Heart of New Orleans” in which musicians and local art markets were exhibited in a weekend festival. NOMA is currently providing free admission, sponsored by the New Orleans Musicians Clinic and other sponsors. However, despite the grand reopening and theme of the ensuing event, the museum is open only three days a week and is showing non-Louisiana artists in their main exhibition, “Seen in Solitude: Robert Kipniss Prints from the James F. White Collection”.[32] As a result, NOMA has not been competing with edgier new museums and galleries in the New Orleans market, including the Contemporary Arts Center and The Ogden Museum of Southern Art.[33] Instead, the museum has fallen behind in the exhibition of local artists suffering from the hurricane and in general facility operations.

Both the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) are experiencing greater attendance then NOMA. Their appeal has been bolstered by a more personal connection with the community created through local exhibitions and special events. For example, at the Ogden Museum a Thursday Music Night After Hours started two months after the Hurricane. According to the New York Times, the introduction of this event coupled with its emphasis on local artists doubled the number of visitors to the museum. The New York Times also credits this to the fact that there was nothing else culturally open in the city so people came in droves. In addition, the CAC recently held an exhibition of photography dedicated to New Orleans, and instead of displaying captions by the artists they displayed pictures of the damage done to each of artist’s houses.[34] This exhibition highlights the use of personal storytelling and exhibitions to increase visitors and give them a more relatable relationship to the artists themselves.

In addition to special events and personal exhibits, both museums participate in collaborative events such as Whitney’s White Linen Night. This event is held on the first of August and usually attracts crowds of over 16,000. The event consists of galleries in close proximity to each other open from six until nine in the evening. All galleries and nearby museums (the Ogden and the CAC) are within easy walking distance of each other and admission is free. Many are on streets closed to cars, further encouraging foot traffic. In addition to the art galleries, food courts are also erected and activities at the nearby Children’s Museum are included for children, catering to families. Music is also a prominent feature of the event.[35] This cultural event corresponds with the cultural centralization suggested by Kotler.[36] However, NOMA is unable to participate at White Linen Night. As indicated, the museum is a 20-minute drive from the city’s art district. The absence of NOMA from events like White Linen Night underscores the separation of the traditional art museum (NOMA) with the new emerging art community.[37] NOMA must make itself present in this event specifically, and others like it, to attract new visitors, especially families, and show a greater involvement in the community.

One potential approach to introduce NOMA into White Linen Night would be to create an ongoing satellite exhibition during these events in the rentable exhibition space located in the gallery district, preferably along Julia Street. Here would be an excellent location to further the gallery’s participation by contributing to the narrative.

For example, one event could be based on reintroducing artists back to the New Orleans community, through the use of their work and their relocation stories. The reintegrating of artists such as Dan Tague (1974- ), a conceptual sculptor, who created a new colony of New Orleans artists in New York City,[38] would be an excellent choice. A specific work by the artist is “Self Portrait in Harms Way” in which he constructed a silhouette of his body in orange extension cords to illustrate the frustration of people in New Orleans as electric power failed and the city was flooded.[39] In addition to being native to New Orleans, the artist’s work is diverse. The work ranges from conceptual sculpture to two-dimensional paintings.

The use of a group exhibition and varied kinds of work by NOMA would, as suggested by Zelermyer,[40] promote an opportunity for the museums association with new artists as well as a potential appeal to new audiences. The works would be presented by the artists in a series of “storytelling” about their relocation and the effect of that movement on their work. On a wall of the exhibition there could be a map of the United States used to locate the artists or be used to involve the audience’s participation, by allowing them to pin the location that they evacuated to. This “mapping” allows for visitor participation in a very powerful way.

Not only would this approach personalize the art, it would create a familiar story of families who had to relocate because of the storm. This event of storytelling will engage the audience and facilitate discussion as suggested by Czarniawska in his discussion of the importance of storytelling in “narrative”.[41] The event of the hurricane affected everyone. Even if individuals can’t relate to the art they can relate to the feeling of displacement and frustration caused by the aftermath. In addition the act of storytelling can be related to all ages. Children and elderly members of the community can both equally share their unique experiences. These themes could become important examples of how NOMA relates to its public.

To realize this exhibition, one must consult the positions and the order of operations on how the event would theoretically be approved. The NOMA’s staff that would be directly affected by the proposal would consist of the Director and specifically the Curator and Director of Development. However, the Deputy Director, Assistant Director for Art, Curator of Education, Graphics Coordinator, Librarian/Grants Officers, Curator of Decorative Arts, Development Associate, Executive Assistant, Controller, Assistant Registrar, Publications, Director of Development and Public Relations Officer would be affected as well.[42] The agreement of artists to participate in a series of guest individual shows would have to be negotiated. However these pieces will not be sought after to be included in the Museum’s permanent collection. In addition the sponsors of White Linen Night, such as the Whitney Bank, would have to be consulted to approve the collaboration.[43]

Funding opportunities for a project of this scale may be difficult. However, prior to the hurricane, NOMA was planning expansion. The original plans, supported by the museum’s art director, involved the construction of an additional building in the surrounding City Park environment. This expansion would not have brought the Museum closer to the “Cluster of Culture” or activity in the city suggested by Hendon.[44] Instead the expansion would have given the impression of a glorified isolationist castle. However, due to the storm the museum is not able to fund any form of expansion by itself.[45] As a result, this money could be better spent elsewhere. In addition, the new direction of NOMA during the proposed events and through ongoing storm sympathy could be used to generate more sponsor money not only for restoration but also for expansion to better serve the community. New Orleans Museum of Art has the unique opportunity to establish a new image. By reaching out to the problems faced by the New Orleans community described through narrative art exhibitions the museum can create an image based on communal sympathy and civic pride.

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Berger, Joseph. “After Katrina, Artists Find A New Colony”. The New York Times, March 11, 2006.
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Cook, Sarah. “Towards the Theory of the Practice of Curating New Media Art” Beyond the Box: Diverging Curatorial Practices. Melanie Townsend ed., Banff: Banff Centre Press. 2003.
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http://www.noma.org/index.html (accessed April 13, 2006)
The New Orleans Online http://www.neworleansonline.com/neworleans/festivals/whitelinen.html (accessed April 13, 2006)
“NOMA’s New Vision”, The Times Picayune (New Orleans, La.: March 4, 2006.)
Schwartz, Deborah F. “Dude, Where’s My Museum? Inviting Teens to Transform the Museum.” Museum News September/October 2005: 36-41.
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Shuster, Davidson Mark. The Audience for American Art Museums. Washington: Seven Locks Press, 1950.
Schroeder, Annie. “New Orleans Museum to Re-Open with a Salute to the Arts” http://www.noma.org/pressroom/index.html (accessed February 21, 2006).
Skramstad, Harold and Susan. ”Dreaming the Museum” Museum News March/April (2005): 52-55.
http://www.DanTague.com (accessed April 16, 2006)
Welsh, Peter. “Re-configuring Museums,” Museum Management and Curatorship, (2005.)
Zelermyer, Rebecca. Gallery Management. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1976.

Endnotes
1 Robert R. Macdonald, “AAM at 100: And you thought the First Century was Challenging” Museum News “January/February (2006): 29.
2 Ibid.
3 Peter Welsh, “Re-configuring Museums,” (Museum Management and Curatorship, 20, 2005.) 103.
4 James Chung and Tara May. “X Tended Family: Attracting the Post-Boomer Audience” (Museum News November/December (2005): 54.
5 William S. Hendon, Analyzing an Art Museum. (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1979.) 206, 207, 208.
6 Ibid. 208, 209, 210
7 John Shwartz,. “Eye On New Orleans; Museums Roll Again but Where Are the All the People?”(The New York Times, March 29, 2006) http://travel.nytimes.com/2006/03/29/arts/artsspecial/29orleans.html Accessed March 23, 2007.
8 Ibid.
9 Chung, 54
10 Harold and Susan Skramstad,. ”Dreaming the Museum” Museum News March/April (2005): 53.
11 Hendon, 220, 221, 222
12 Czarniawska,. A Narrative Approach to Organization Studies. (California: Sage Publications Inc, 1998.) 1.
13 Skramstad, 53
14 Welsh, 112
15 Deborah F. Schwartz, “Dude, Where’s My Museum? Inviting Teens to Transform Museum” (Museum News September/October (2005) 36.
16 American Association of Museums, “Museums working in Public Interest”, (ABCs of Museums, http://www.aam-us.org/aboutmuseums/index.cfm)
17 Hendon, 215, 220, 225
18 Ibid. 220, 221, 222
19 Neil Kotler,. “New Ways of Experiencing Culture: the Role of Museums and Marketing Implications,” (Museum Management and Curatorship 19:4, 2001) 418, 419.
20 Davidson Mark Shuster,. The Audience for American Art Museums. (Washington: Seven Locks Press, 1950.) 5.
21 Hendon, 215, 220
22 Shuster, 5
23 Hendon, 215
24 Rebecca Zelermyer. Gallery Management. (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1976) 114.
25 Ibid. 11
26 Hendon, 235, 236
27 Andrea Fraser. “Round Table: The Present Conditions of Art Criticism.” October. (Spring, 2002)
28 Banff International Curatorial Institute. Beyond the Box. (Banff, AB: Banff Centre Press, 2003.) 170.
29 Martin Feldstein. The Economics of Art Museums. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.) 30, 59.
30 Hendon, 206-241
31 Http://www.moma.org/index.html
32 Annie Schroeder. “New Orleans Museum to Re-Open with a Salute to the Arts”, (Feb. 21, 2006. http://www.noma.org/pressroom/index.html)
33 Shwartz
34 Ibid.
35 http://www.neworleansonline.com/neworleans/festivals/whitelinen.html
36 Kotler, 417-425
37 Hendon, 215, 220
38 Joseph Berger, “After Katrina, Artists Find A New Colony”. (The New York Times, March 11, 2006)
39 Dan Tague, Self Portrait in Harm’s Way. (1995).
40 Zelermyer, 114, 115
41 Czarniawska, 6
42 http://www.noma.org/staff.html
43 http://www.neworleansonline.com/neworleans/festivals/whitelinen.html
44 Hendon, 215
45 “NOMA’s New Vision”, (The Times Picayune (New Orleans, La), March 4, 2006)