Big Data & Museums: Friend or Foe?
This morning I read an excerpt from a forthcoming article by Tyler Green about what I would regard as a major development in the museum world. (As noted at the bottom of the post, the full piece will be available in this month’s issue of Modern Painters.) Green centers the piece on the Dallas Museum of Art, which simultaneously kicked off two important new initiatives almost a year ago.
The first was eliminating their general admission fee, i.e. making visits to the museum’s permanent collection completely free. The second was a membership program (also free) called DMA Friends, a kind of advanced FourSquare system in which visitors interact with various hotspots around the museum via their mobile devices. In return for their participation, the guests receive points, badges, etc that are redeemable for prizes like tickets to a special exhibition or behind the scenes tours. The more you participate, the more you stand to gain.
While these are two separate programs on the surface, Green points out that they actually work in lockstep with one another. Taken together, the DMA is in effect trading admission fees for data on participating visitors - a model which Green suspects will spread to many other cultural institutions in the near future.
Now, the museum is reportedly interested in using that data internally to benefit the community. For example, the information garnered through DMA Friends can provide a window onto which communities in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area are taking advantage of the museum’s resources and which are not, so that they can theoretically create targeted outreach programs to expand the institution’s cultural impact. I can’t imagine many people balking at this goal, save for the few who are already stocking canned goods and automatic weapons for their imminent escape from the grid. It feels like exactly the kind of thing that a non-profit organization should be trying to do.
However, the more important - and I expect, more controversial - development is that the museum is also leveraging the data from the DMA Friends program to potential corporate sponsors. Mind you, the DMA is not directly selling data on individuals - at least, not from what they’re saying publicly. Instead, they’re using that data, according to the museum’s director, Maxwell Anderson, to “be literate about who [corporations’] potential customers are and whom we’re serving…[so that] we can say to corporate philanthropy executives, ‘This is whom we’re reaching, and here’s how it’s relevant to you.’” My interpretation of that quote is that the DMA is supplying broader demographic data and trends that corporations can then use to tailor their own marketing to select groups via support of the arts.
In theory, access to this data should compel major corporations to integrate the DMA into their philanthropic plans. It’s a potentially lucrative gambit for the museum; Green notes that there are an astonishing 10,000 corporate headquarters based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, which sounds less like a factually supported answer than the type of exaggeration an annoyed anti-corporate Texan would spit out if you asked him the question in a dive bar. Yet it’s true. That means a lot of planned charitable giving up for grabs in any calendar year.
One intriguing dimension of this exchange is that it’s a rare appearance by Big Data in the art world. As I’ve noted before, much of the commercial art industry thrives on the asymmetry of information. Gallerists and dealers always know more about the market than even their most informed clients, and they exploit that knowledge to their own advantage. However, most of that information tends to be anecdotal or collected in relatively simple fashion, such as being able to call up a friendly dealer in one’s network to compare pricing on a resale work by a blue chip artist she once handled. A few new guard gallerists, such as David Zwirner, have alluded to using analytics, but this is still a practice in its infancy when it comes to the industry as a whole. The DMA Friends program shows the museum acting, in some broad sense, like a more progressive commercial dealer in its relationship with information.
There are other major differences besides the complexity of the data being used by the museum. Members of the DMA Friends program are not only volunteering their data - they’re actually getting some kind of utility out of the transaction, too. “Free admission” may not be totally free in that sense. But the trade is much closer to fair than in a commercial gallery environment, where a gallerist is most frequently using one-sided data to motivate the best possible deal for herself at the client’s direct expense.
Nevertheless, I’m anticipating some degree of populist outrage over the DMA’s plans. Even many people who have made their careers in the arts remain uncomfortable with the commingling of culture and corporate dollars. I am not one of them. What people on the outside of the industry tend not to understand is that museum jobs are basically fund-raising jobs. As Green notes in his post, admissions fees account for a paltry 2-4% of American museums’ operating revenue in cities outside the Tourist Triangle of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The other 96-98% comes via gifts from a mixture of corporations and well-heeled private donors, many of whom, of course, owe their private fortunes to corporate dominance.
The truth is that the arts need money to survive. This has always been the case. It’s not as if Renaissance artists were painting religious figures and courtly portraits because they were especially pious or patriotic; they were doing it because the church and the monarchy were the ones who could pay them. Yes, the relationship between money and the arts can be fraught. But the real question is whether the artist or institution allows themselves or their work to be bent to the grossest will of their benefactors. I would not be pleased if Richard Serra accepted McDonald’s money to craft a massive arc sculpture that morphed into the golden arches when viewed from above. But if he took that same money to stretch his creative wings in an exciting way, then by all means, back up the Brinks truck to his studio.
This is ultimately the lens through which the DMA Friends initiative should be viewed. So too with any similar programs at other American museums. (Green notes that the software being used by the DMA is open-source, and that they’re already talking to a few other major institutions, including LACMA, about their model.) If innocent, voluntarily supplied data will permanently prop open the doors of some of the country’s greatest visual and cultural treasures, this seems like an exciting trade-off. It would be one of the rare moves that could make more of the arts, so often the closed realm of the elites, more democratic. Data feels like a small price to pay for that result.