If you picked up a schedule for the Speed Art Museum sometime last summer, you’d probably think they were doing everything a museum should do to attract new audiences. There were events scheduled all throughout the week, typically in the evenings.
But according to director Stephen Reily, that format wasn’t working very well.
“Any time we’d keep the museum open for an extra hour it cost us money, and we were finding a lot of the same audience coming back for these events,” Reily said. “We weren’t reaching new audiences and it was a very inefficient way to use the building.”
At the same time, museum staff were trying to come up with a solution to another problem: growing their membership.
Since reopening the museum after a multimillion dollar renovation in 2016, Reily said the organization hadn’t found a really compelling way to encourage people, especially young people, to become members.
But this isn’t just a problem at the Speed; it’s a problem at museums around the country.
“Overall, as a sector we are losing audience with younger visitors not being recruited at a rate that makes up for the displacement for older generations,” said Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums at the American Alliance of Museums.
Merritt said museums face several challenges when it comes to attracting millennials.
“There is more competition for leisure time,” she said. “The internet and mobile devices and social media make it easier than ever for people to find experiences that are relevant to their interests.”
Additionally, she said, younger audiences want a different kind of museum experience than what’s typically been offered.
“They want to participate with museums in an interactive and immersive way,” Merritt said. “They want to be more than the passive recipients of information.”
Now museums all across the country, including the Speed, are facing this problem with a simple solution: throw a party.
Reily described the staff’s initial idea: “What if we could concentrate all our programming, or a lot of it, on one night that would be free to members? That was the genesis of the idea. When we launched it we realized we were on to something bigger.”
The resulting event is called ‘After Hours’ at the Speed. It’s a party that happens every third Friday from 5 to 10 p.m.
And the museum has gone all-out to appeal to new audiences; each of these events features multiple bands, guest lecturers, silent discos, a full bar and a rotating menu.
And — another thing about attracting younger people — the Speed also markets ‘After Hours’ really heavily on Facebook and Instagram.
“We’ve always had over a thousand [people],” Reily said. “We started in January at 1,700. It was kind of crazy, we were learning about how many people the building can hold. The board started asking me questions about our capacity limits at that point.”
Now that the Speed knows these events are worthwhile, they’re in the process of figuring out what exactly makes them so successful, so they can replicate the results.
“Now we are looking back and saying, ‘We had a good plan, why did it turn out so well so unexpectedly well?’” said Reily.
This is something museums across the nation are doing, too. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston is even using grant money to research what makes a perfect museum party.
The museum published its findings in 2016 and there were four main takeaways: digital marketing beforehand is key; they needed to heavily emphasize the social aspect of the parties; interactive gallery games are a hit; and, finally, serving alcohol — even though there might be spills which make curators nervous — is non-negotiable.
The Speed employs all those techniques and as a result Reily said the events have definitely appealed to a younger crowd; 16 percent come from local universities.
And he says the Speed has finally figured out how to convince those people to become members: simple economics. They tell visitors they could party more for less money.
“It’s become the huge opportunity to sell memberships,” Reily said. “We’re saying ‘You can come to all of them if you join as a member and you can come to our special exhibits for free as well.’”
According to Reily, they average 50 membership sales during each ‘After Hours’ event — which is a good start towards ensuring the future of the Speed.