The Dallas Museum of Art has received several large grants over the last few months, with many going to support the institution's expansion of its Conservation Department. But its latest 250 thousand dollar acquisition will be spent exploring how visitors relate to art and programming offered and how engaging they find that experience.
Those topics are not new territory for the museum. It has spent seven years identifying visiting subgroups or "clusters," and evaluating which activities and factors are most likely to draw them into their experiences. That series of studies, co-coordinated with the museum research group Randi Korn & Associates, directly resulted in some of the DMA's most accomplished points of renown, like its multimedia smARTphone programs which are produced in-house. They chose the option of making those digital materials onsite so that they can easily be altered to change with both technological advancement and new research findings in visitor engagement.
But that got us wondering: What specifically will these newly funded studies target? And will the DMA continue using outside help to get its answers or will the money go to making the institution more self-reliant, like the other grants it's received this year?
We asked the DMA's new Deputy Director and technology guru, Robert Stein, exactly that.
The last round of visitor engagement evaluation in the Framework For Engaging With Art studies (FEA) concluded roughly four years ago, and that's a massive gap, explains Stein. There's a need to bridge it by "examin[ing] how those audiences may or may not have shifted since 2009. Certainly the cultural audiences that connect to the Arts District have changed."
He gets audibly excited discussing sample groups, visitor patterns and their morphing relationships with technology. Unifying those topics and predicting their shifts is something Stein is known for. In his former role as the Deputy Director for Research, Technology and Engagement at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, he brought his vision to life by hiring several PhD staffers, and worked with them to build an in-house evaluation model. That allowed the museum's crew to test and retest data constantly against a wide range of factors, including research from other institutions. Since the DMA offered more than 5,000 programs last year alone -- yes, 5,000 -- expanding its onsite testing parameters and staff makes solid fiscal sense. It's clearly a goal, although perhaps not a directly professed one just yet.
Will this mark an end of a long relationship with Randi Korn & Associates? Only partially. While Stein still sees the need to collaborate on certain projects, hiring someone else to do their research is costly, and he believes that exploring which programs need to be tweaked, expanded or eliminated should be a cause of daily review, rather than a sporadic one. "I think it's important for us to have a dedication to ongoing evaluation," says Stein. "If we have to contract somebody to help us to review a program, then we're less likely to do it,"
Those 5,000 programs offered at the DMA include everything from classes and docent tours to apps and supplemental learning materials. "It's hard to judge a program and say one is good or one is bad," says Stein, "but we want to make sure that we have the most impact possible with a finite amount of resources." He goes on to say that the excitement flowing through the DMA's staff is palpable. That they're looking forward to having time for reflection and self-reflection and seeing the broken-down results of their daily efforts.
On a more macro view, it all falls inline with Maxwell Anderson's core ideals: Fill the museum with the brightest folks available. (He and Stein are former colleagues from Indianapolis; hiring him was one of Anderson's first moves.) Develop and expand in-house departments. Do everything publicly, and use technology to engage the community. This grant is another rung in that ladder, and an opportunity for Stein to investigate what Dallas residents really want from an art experience.