Friday 1 October 2010


On his blog this week, the adjectival Stephen Fry (a member of the board of the Royal Academy) made a massive push for RA memberships, writing "if I can persuade any of you who are good enough to follow me to befriend this wonderful institution then I have done you a favour and at the same time helped a place I love to continue in its marvellous work."

Early in the post Fry writes about getting his first induction into the world of looking at art from Gombrich's The Story of Art, and notes

To stand in front of an artwork can cause bursts of excitement and surges of pleasure and thumps of intense feeling that are not unlike those an adolescent experiences when glimpsing someone who stirs desire in them. It pleases me that every year more and more people go into art galleries and museums to look at collections or special exhibitions. ...

For any of you plagued by memories of having to troop listlessly after your parents or school group leader as you were shepherded from one masterpiece to another and forced to listen to well-meaning but often confusing, stultifying or irrelevant explanations and interpretations from tour-guides and experts, I have nothing but sympathy. We have all been there. If that has put you off galleries and exhibitions in later life then you have the unimaginable pleasure ahead of discovering what it is like to look at pictures in your own time, at your own speed, just as you please. The beauty of art galleries when you are no longer in a tourist group or family is that you don’t have to go “round” – you can pop in to see just one room, or even just one painting. There are no rules and no “correct” way to look.
This reminded me of an interview with Kristen Denner, the Whitney Museum's head of membership that Nina Simon recently posted.

The Whitney's membership packages are now offered as Curate Your Own

When buying a membership from the Whitney, you get a core set of standard benefits, and one 'series', from the following list, for US$85:

  • Social
  • Insider
  • Learning
  • Family
  • Philanthropy

You can keep adding extra series to your membership, each at a cost of US$40. In the interview, Denner notes

We started with focus groups with current and prospective members, asking about their interests and what kinds of experiences they would really value as part of membership. I wanted to test a hypothesis that we should be segmenting our members not by demographics but by interest, in order to foster that emotional connection. And we confirmed that hypothesis. Some experiences completely cut across demographics - some people like parties, some people want a solitary experience with art... and that solitary experience person might be 20 or they might be 80. People want to experience art in quite individual ways. So we wanted a membership segmentation that reflected their individual needs.

I also thought this was interesting

Were there any needs that came up in the focus groups that you were not able to meet?

Seeing the installation process was a big one. In some cases, the artist is not comfortable, or there are insurance and liability issues. We really tried to figure this one out and decided we couldn't reliably offer it as a member benefit.

One person expressed a desire to spend alone time with a work of art in a kind of member contemplation room. There were security issues, but ultimately the objection was that it's not in keeping with the Whitney's mission. It’s important to us that art be available to all, not just to particular types of members.

This observation seems to point for a desire for more intimate, behind the scenes, personal experiences - the physical equivalent of what all the outreach online (installation views on blogs, video interviews, conversations on twitter, museum staff leaving comments on your blog) is giving people.

Writing this I realise that I've let all my art gallery memberships lapse (and replaced them with super sexy things like InternetNZ). I suppose this can only be because the needs they previously satisfied (shop discounts, information updates, invitations to openings) no longer scratch of my itches. Hmmmm.

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