Tuesday, January 16, 2018

5 Things That Great Dining And Great Museum Experiences Have In Common

Let me tell you about Bigelow's.  It's a little "hole in the wall" sort of place near my home on Long Island known for its fried clams. Bigelow's has been in business in the same spot since 1939.  I went there for lunch today with my youngest son Philip, and in-between our sighs of pleasure and chatting it up with our fellow diners, I was reminded of how much a great dining experience is like a great museum experience.

1) Everyone Knows Where It Is

I know you can use Google Maps or Yelp, but if you ask somebody at a hotel front desk or a taxi driver where a local restaurant or museum is, they should be able to tell you right away. If the place is really good, they should also be able to enthuse about a memorable experience that they or a friend had there recently.  I remember visiting a city whose (unnamed) museum was practically across the street from the well-known professional football stadium, and not one taxi driver knew where that museum was located or had even heard of it.  That's sad.

2) You Feel Welcomed Right Away

Even if it's the first time you've been there, a great museum or dining spot makes you instantly feel welcomed and at ease.  It's a combination of the physical entry sequence (starting in the parking lot) and the staff people at the entrance that do the trick. You feel like you are in the right place and are starting out your visit in a positive way.  Think about the qualities of the places that always make you feel welcomed (and the ones that don't!)

In the case of Bigelow's, you see the stools around the horseshoe-shaped counter (so you know where to sit right away) and the straightforward menu board lets you see your options (so you can start thinking about what you'd like to eat or drink as soon as you sit down.)  

Contrast that with some museums where you have no idea where to pay your admission, or how to figure out which things you want to do or pay for.

Welcome to Bigelow's!

3) Friendly Staff Anticipate Your Needs

You never wait for your water glass to be refilled, or twiddle your thumbs waiting for the check at a great restaurant. That's because the people who work there are alert and genuinely attentive to their customers' needs.  Great museums have actual floor staff interacting with visitors, not just chatting in a corner by themselves.  Wonderful dining and museum experiences share an important social component.  A positive interaction with a staff person often adds to the overall experience.

4) You Tell Friends About The Place And Want To Take Them There

A fantastic experience at a great place is one you want to share with other people. There's a reason "word of mouth" advertising is so sought after --- you can't fake it or spend your way there.  If you had a remarkable museum experience you tell other people about it.  And you want to go back there to share that positive experience with people you care about.  I've written blog posts about "museums worth a special trip" those places you would travel out of your way to go see based on a friend's recommendation.  I would definitely put places like The City Museum in St. Louis, or Chanticleer Garden outside Philadelphia in that rarefied category. 

Bigelow's is worth a special trip!

5) Memory Makers!

The best museums (and restaurants!) are memory makers.  They are the places that are part of every story that starts with "Remember the time we ..."  They are the places that you want to post on Facebook or Instagram because you felt the experience was worth capturing and sharing.  The picture at the top of this post shows my friends Bistra and Nadia from Muzeiko in Bulgaria after a lunch we shared at Bigelow's.  They asked for me to bring them somewhere that was real "Long Island."  And even though they both grew up thousands of miles away, they loved it!  And what business can ask for more than that?

As you are starting out your New Year and thinking about ways to improve the museum(s) you work for, maybe a trip to your favorite local restaurant can give you just the right kind of "food for thought" to inspire making some memorable changes for your visitors!

Facebook-ready "food for thought" from Bigelow's!

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Sunday, January 7, 2018

You Want "Free" Museums? Then Show Me The Money!

Recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it was changing its entrance fee policies.

And immediately a torrent of outrage and pearl-clutching was unleashed into the Internet echo chamber by museum workers and art critics and culture supporters of all stripes. Basically, the social media grousing was about equally divided between those who said "all museums should be free!" and folks who characterized the people running The Met as heartless philistines (or worse!)

In an ideal world, every museum would be open to all, and not charge any admissions fees.  I am with you there 100%.  But how do we make that happen in a practical, and sustainable, way?

In the real world, somebody (or some entity) pays for free admissions policies --- and that usually boils down to rich people and/or governments giving money to museums. That money almost always has various strings attached, and not every museum has access to the recurring rich people's money and/or government funding to make that happen.

In places where most of the museums are "free" (like Washington D.C. or St. Louis, for example) taxes or voter-approved funding structures pave the way for "free" admission.  Somebody is still paying to keep the museum running, but not through the direct contributions of visitors through the door.

I understand The Met is an easy target for outrage (for lots of reasons beyond admissions policies) but let's looks at some numbers:

• Recent articles indicate that only 17 percent of Met visitors pay the full suggested admission of $25; the average person pays $9.  So let's just set aside the egalitarian notion of "suggested admissions" or "pay what you can" policies.  There are people visiting The Met who can pay more to get in, and choose not to.  If The Met wants to make it harder for rich tourists to cheap out on paying their fair share to see the Museum, I say go for it!  (The real question is how to provide universal museum access for the truly needy, not just thrifty yuppies.)

• How much would it actually cost to make up the "lost" admission revenue at The Met annually if there were no admission charge?  Recent attendance figures at The Met topped 6.7 million visitors.
So if you multiply that by the suggested admission fee of $25 you get a figure of over 167 million dollars annually. More than the 148 million dollars annual budget of the National Endowment of the Arts.  For just one museum! And that doesn't even take into account the Association of Art Museum Directors 2016 report findings that show the actual average cost of serving art museum visitors is closer to $55 per person. So museums are already subsidizing the costs of visitation in most cases.

• Beyond admissions prices and policies, does no-cost museum entry really provide the sort of universal access we would hope for?  Check out this blog post by Colleen Dilenschneider for some data and links regarding that very question. (Spoiler alert: free admission is far from the engagement cure-all that some of its supporters believe it is.)

So while I understand, on an emotional level, the pissed-off people shouting slogans or comparing The Met to Marie Antoinette on the Web, I'm afraid that alone isn't going to change the crappy, unsustainable business models of cultural institutions. 

I think our challenges to improve museum access can be both "big picture" (using the example of the funding structure of public libraries as a good starting point for political action and advocacy) and "intensely local" (what is one way we as museum workers can help a local museum to increase its access to all people?)

Those sorts of efforts might not provide the noisy, immediate gratification of social media posts about free admission policies but I think they can create longer-term impacts for both our museums and our communities.

What do you think?  Let us know in the "Comments" section below.

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