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The art of audience development in museums and galleries

They say that distance makes the heart grow fonder. And for the institutions that have not only maintained audience engagement but grown it over the course of the pandemic, that has certainly proved itself to be the case.

Here are just a few observations on how cultural spaces can cement relationships with their audiences.

Now, more than ever, museums need their audiences. While there has been plenty of time to dwell on the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can all agree that there is a desire to look forward. To take the learnings of the last two years and use them to better the audience experience now that restrictions are lifting and business as usual can return . . . although it may be a new form of usual!

Of course, audience development is essential for those institutions looking to drive footfall, grow digital user numbers and share their cultural value as broadly as possible.

Understanding audience development

Effective audience development looks different for every venue, as it is tailored to the specific needs of a museum and its consumers. But understanding the common themes involved in this activity can help organisations make long-term commitments that enhance engagement and grow audience numbers.

Arts Council England defines audience development as an activity “undertaken specifically to meet the needs of existing and potential audiences, and to help arts organisations to develop ongoing relationships with audiences”. It can include aspects of “marketing, commissioning, programming, education, customer care and distribution.”

What’s more, this ‘audience’ can include visitors, attendees, readers, viewers, listeners, learners and participants. As a continual and actively managed process, audience development can help to cement that all important relationship between individuals and the arts.

Mastering the art of audience development

According to Arts Derbyshire, the best practices for museums and galleries looking to implement effective audience development include:

  • Maintaining a holistic mindset – thinking of it as an organisation-wide commitment
  • Thinking long-term – considering stepping stones, goals and long term achievements
  • Splitting audience development into two categories: existing audience and potential audience
  • Considering audience development to be an ongoing process rather than a series of short term projects
  • Remembering that audience development plans aren’t set in stone and can be changed. Think plan, evaluate, review and plan.

Audience development is both a short-term and a long-term process. Instigating immediate changes to the way venues interact with, invite and reward their audience should be measured in long term change. An enthusiastic response to a single event doesn’t necessarily indicate lifelong loyalty, but each accepted invitation can, over time, build bridges that will last for many years.

Is audience development harder for museums and galleries than other cultural institutions?

In the past, it’s been theorised that audience development is more difficult for the likes of museums and galleries when compared to performing arts venues and participatory arts events. That’s because there is, on average, less direct contact with attendees. It can be more difficult for audiences to put a face to the name of their favourite museums, which in theory could make it harder to create long term loyalty.

However, many venues are proving that, through imaginative exhibitions, projects and initiatives, effective audience development is attainable for museums and galleries.

The V&A, for example, has put a great deal of effort into transforming its wayfinding system – the way people physically move within the museum space – with the aim of providing a more fluid experience for its visitors. This involved appointing human-led design consultancy firm CCD to create a system that incorporated research to understand how different visitors see, interact with and understand the museum itself.


Above: Victoria & Albert Museum, London (image Shutterstock)

Director of Design, Exhibitions and FuturePlan at the Victoria and Albert Museum, David Bickle, said of the museum’s efforts: “Our aim is to use wayfinding to enrich the visitor experience by them helping explore the rich contents of the museum and its collections. The V&A attracts visitors from all over the world, and CCD has grasped that by understanding their needs we can, together, create a wayfinding system that will improve people’s time at the museum.”

In recent years, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego has made audience reaction its primary focus. Until 1994, the museum had only part-time museum educators on staff and did little outreach to schools. This is a far cry from its priorities today.

Charles Castle, the museum’s associate director has stated: “We were so focused on programs that the reaction of the audience was secondary. Since then, we’ve rethought the package.”

This has involved simply spending more time and money conversing with visitors, incentivising their visits with offers and special packages, and offering an all-round more engaging experience. And the result has been that attendance, memberships and donations are all on the rise.

Audience development should involve a mixture of efforts to bring visitors through the door – with effective marketing, offers and invitations – and ways to make the museum experience as memorable and pleasing as possible once visitors have stepped foot in the building.

The Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio puts a great deal of effort into ensuring visitors are looked after whilst inside the museum space. The museum includes a number of committed visitor services representatives who move between the two lobby spaces and galleries. Visitors are greeted, directed to various programs, offered a gallery brochure and given the opportunity to partake in a free audio tour.

Final thoughts

When broken down to its most basic parts, audience development simply involves meeting the needs of museum visitors and encouraging them to come back again. What this includes will look different for every establishment, and every audience, which is why it’s important to get to know the audience base and discover what aspects of a museum are appealing and important to them.

Audience development isn’t just about bringing visitors back to the museum space, but about making art more accessible and appealing to the wider public, helping museums cement their status as a space we can go to make better sense of the world around us.

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