Is Exhibitionism Right for You?

An announcement that Jeffrey Deitch is leaving the directorship of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles is expected this afternoon. The man behind Deitch Projects, his former gallery on Wooster Street in New York, Deitch was an eyebrow-raising and, to many (including several MOCA curators and its artist board members), a dismaying choice to lead the struggling museum in 2010. His risk-taking on the exhibition front, writes Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight, “was regularly mischaracterized as celebrity-oriented and blindly populist. . . . Instead, his program is better described as simply representing a belief that art culture and popular culture have merged, becoming one and the same.”

In Knight’s view, this belief is “just one among many competing notions in the argumentative arena of contemporary art.” I like how he puts this, but it sounds like Deitch ran aground at MOCA less for his belief in a merged culture than for presenting it in watered-down form.

I introduced the term “panders,” meaning audience-focused initiatives, in last week’s post [“Giant Panders and Lesser Panders”]. Though this term is tongue-in-cheek, and meant to knock such initiatives when done badly, the goal of cultural marketers should be to pander masterfully: to build audience without diluting the quality of the product, dumbing-down the communication, or distorting the institution’s identity.   

I oppose pushing the general public’s current hot buttons not (only) because I’m an elitist Luddite prude. And not (just) because most cultural institutions are too square to pull it off. It’s more a matter of buyer’s remorse.

College courses in arts administration were rare in the late 1970s, but I found a seminar in which we read and discussed research studies and the handful of books then available, notably: Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma (1968); Bach, Beethoven, and Bureaucracy: The Case of the Philadelphia Orchestra (1971); and The Subsidized Muse (1978). A finding that stayed with me was that when you made subscription brochures for regional theater companies colorful and exciting—”sexed them up,” so to speak—you increased your conversion rate (the percentage who purchased), but most of the new subscribers disappeared the following season. They were also poisoning the environment with negative 3P (see my post “The Power of 3P”).

These remorseful subscribers were acquired by over-promising and lost by under-delivering. Not that the steak wasn’t USDA Prime (it may or may not have been), but the sizzle was far fainter at the table than on TV. The regional theater experience was being sold as something that it wasn’t to people who, in many cases, did not want what it was. Does this type of language, from three 2013-14 season brochures (theater, opera, orchestra), sound familiar?

  • A tale of mistaken identity and mismatched ardor unfurls as lords and ladies, servants and masters wind a topsy-turvy path to happiness. [Shakespeare]
  • When the poison she concocts to kill Tristan turns out to be a love potion, her hatred becomes uncontrolled passion. [Wagner]
  • His was a genius that revealed itself early, developed swiftly and vanished all too soon. [Mozart, but would also work nicely for Schubert, Bellini, Gershwin, etc.]

This kind of experiential bait-and-switch is less of a problem for museums, since most of the “Treasures!” and “Masterpieces!” are more self-evidently what they are claimed to be (so were the Guggenheim’s motorcycles). The issue with museums—as in MOCA’s case—is to what extent choices that are traditionally curatorial are subject to financial, marketing, and political considerations that may distort them.

Two principles meant to reduce shooting from the hip, when aiming to build audience:

1. There are many people out there who will love you just the way you are, but don’t know that you exist. Find them and tell them about yourself. 

2. There are many people out there who will grow to love you, but would never have imagined it. Find them and take them by the hand.

The point is not to stop surprising, thrilling, and occasionally shocking people (they are called exhibitions, after all). But to truly cultivate an audience, an institution’s architecture, interior design, artistic and educational programming, visitor services, and communications should be congruent, mutually reinforcing, harmonious—or consistently dissonant, if that’s what you’re after. This is the essence of branding, which you can watch me try to keep in its cage next week.

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