How Blockbuster Exhibitions engage new audiences and bring in new visitors

By the eve of the opening, the membership base had grown by 20 times as art lovers whipped out credit cards to secure priority access to the Kusama exhibition. The extra revenue is nice, but the new relationships may be worth a lot more.

“Now that we have all these new members, we have new emails and ways to contact these folks and to get them engaged and stay engaged with the museum,” said deputy director Elizabeth Duggal.

One of this year’s biggest “Blockbuster” exhibitions is a retrospect of the increasingly popular artist, Yayoi Kusama. Currently at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, a Smithsonian Institution in D.C., the museum is already seeing some amazing visitor patterns due to this show. 

Will these patterns last after the exhibition has closed and moved on? According to the boost in membership, one would think so. But how many people will actually use that membership again? How many new “members” are visiting tourists, and became one because it was their only hope to see the artworks during their stay? 

The Hirshhorn Deputy Director mentions the value of the extra revenue, but then points out the more important value brought by this exhibition – the value of building new relationships. This kind of relationship in my mind is broader than just this one museum – any museum that breaks down old school barriers to engage with newer and younger audiences, is doing all museums a favor. It is not just leading by example in the industry, but shaping a more positive image of “museums” in a once unlikely visitor’s mind. By facilitating a show that is as immersive as Kusama’s, audiences who may not have been to a museum in years will show up. This may have part to do with the very high “cool” factor of this artist in particular, as well as the imminent “fear of missing out” that is always a factor in driving any well marketed experience. 

This brings to mind last year’s Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse exhibition, that brought together all 3 panels of Monet’s most famous Water Lilies under one roof. As a native Clevelander, this was all the talk from friends and family back home – most of whom could be categorized as that hard to reach audience whom museums struggle to engage. The CMA sold out timed tickets all too quickly. University Circle boomed with life that entire holiday season. It was evident that this one exhibit re-sparked an interest in lost visitors to experience art again, and engage with all museums on the campus more actively. 

Whether tourists or locals, big blockbusters like these show their true value in bringing in new, unlikely, hard to reach, or once lost audiences into the museum space. It is like a second chance at a first impression – make a bing bang to kick start a new relationship. That is the greatest value in a rockstar temporary exhibition, like this Yayoi Kusama Retrospect. 

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