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The Dallas Museum of Art's New, Uncharted Course is About a Lot More Than Being Free

DMA Director Maxwell Anderson
DMA Director Maxwell Anderson
Mark Graham

As the announcement sunk in, so did comprehension: The Dallas Museum of Art will do away with general admission fees and offer free memberships beginning in January of 2013. But how?

The last 10 months of Maxwell Anderson's stint in the director's chair have been a barrage of smaller successes that, when laced together, form a financially sound institution devoted to self-reliance. Grant funding for new projects now reaches into the multimillion dollar range, allowing for expansion of the building's physical space, the DMA's technological reach and the diversity of its collection, which before Anderson took office tipped too heavily toward modern art.

These individual announcements now lay face up on the table, and they look a lot like winning hand. Combined with free admission, they will lead to visitation increasing next year. And the museum has carefully positioned itself to accommodate a larger, and more diverse, audience than ever before.

But the most thrilling card hasn't been played, and that's because it doesn't exist. Not yet. Not anywhere.

"We're building it ourselves." Anderson tells the Observer. "And it will be open-source and offered for free to any other museum that would like to use it."

He's speaking of an interactive program the museum is building that will thread throughout all points of museum communication -- so intricate it will require the diligence of two new, full-time software developers. Its limits are currently unknown, but conceptually it has the potential to self-study and mold central aspects of cultural interactivity.

Some goals are more easily identifiable than others, but all will weave through the Dashboard tool and website. Soon you -- and the museum staff -- will be able to access Dashboard and check out how many people, exactly, are in the museum at that time. But as the technology behind it advances, so will the layering of detail.

"We'll be building an interactive map so that you'll be able to see, in real time, what zip codes people are from," says Anderson. Merge that with census data and you've got the socioeconomic status and background details of who's taking advantage of the services being offered. And, more importantly, who isn't.

"Pretty soon we'll get a good picture of who's not visiting us," says Anderson, "which is what I really want to know."

 

Remember that $250,000 grant the DMA was recently awarded to research and evaluate visitor engagement? In some ways, that is this. Touchscreens will be available throughout the galleries, and thanks to a recent ILMS/MacArthur grant, there will soon be an on-site tech center, all designed to demolish old models of simply "looking at" art.

Nobody is required to participate in the coming wave of connectivity; in fact, Anderson promises not to encroach on anyone's chosen path of learning. But becoming engaged in the experience is valuable for a number of reasons, from the concrete -- incentives offered by the museum in the form of free parking, exhibition tickets and more -- to the less visible.

By documenting where we live and how we choose to learn, we're sculpting data. We are showing, actively, which programs interest us and which don't. That information is groundbreaking and invaluable for any institution rooted in education, because it can then react, channeling its limited resources directly toward the most effective teaching tools. Add on the social-networking features fused into that software, and you have the foundation for a major cultural study. None of which is lost on Anderson.

"We can adapt and change what we offer to make our audience feel more listened to," he says. "The core value we have here is collecting works of art and presenting them for the public's benefit and everything else surrounds that -- so there really aren't that many rules about how to do it."

How many of those actively participating will go on to make better grades? Graduate high school or college? Will you reference learned material elsewhere in your life that links back to its source, the Dallas Museum of Art? Will you tweet about it? These things might all be able to be cataloged, at which point Dallas would be the first city to study the full range of affect that art and culture can have on our lives, outside and inside the museum's walls.

Or, who knows. Maybe you just want to take a tour and have a docent guide you through an exhibition, without having to wait around. No problem, says Anderson. They're improving the analog experience, too. Those intimidating security guards poised at the entry of every museum you've ever wandered into? They'll be replaced by a Visitor Services department. They'll be friendly. Welcoming. Ready to help you figure out how to get the most mileage from your time. And those archaic seeming tour schedules? Gone.

"We'd like it to be more like a pick-up basketball game," Anderson says. "Where if enough people express to Visitors Services that they'd be interested in a tour, we'll put together a tour. Right on the spot."

By stretching the canvas in these ways, the DMA becomes a more attractive organization for a business to court financially. Who wouldn't want their name connected with innovation that crosses the lines of income and geography? Especially one poviding a refined level of service to the community, at no cost to individuals? Private donors, according to Anderson, have already lined up.

"I've had an outpouring of messages from people in great leadership roles in the city, saying how excited they are to see this, and that they're increasing their support as a way of underscoring their excitement," he says.

Corporations will likely follow suit. And with the recent addition of Klyde Warren Park, odds are strong that current members will see the free parking perk of the paid, Partners membership level, as another reason worthy of continuing their financial commitment to the space. There will be other benefits too, of course, including continued access to the museum's large special exhibitions.

And for everyone else? Welcome to the future.


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