How do American museums choose travelling exhibitions

Over the last two years Vastari has successfully placed quite a few exhibitions into different museums. Over the last two months we have interviewed countless museums from all over the world to better understand how museums decide which exhibitions to host.  

Today we are sharing some of our findings regarding hosting practices from North American museums.

Finding 1 - What is the most important thing that you take into consideration when reading a proposal for the first time?

We asked this question to try and understand what the priorities are for institutions when it comes to bringing exhibitions. The majority of institutions gave us one of these three answers, or sometimes all three were combined into an answer:

  • Compatibility with institution’s thematic focus, but it cannot be an exhibition that the institution can put together in house
  • Audience engagement
  • Connection with the regions

 

Although none of these three answers is surprising, it does offer a lot of food for thought. An exhibition proposed to an institution must be compatible with the institution’s focus but cannot be one that an institution can put together using their own collection. Audience engagement is incredibly important, and in essence a ‘connection’ to the region usually ties back to audience engagement, the idea is that if the exhibition has a connection to the region, it's likelier to bring in a larger local audienc.

Another two answers that were often part of the answer were ‘price, and size’. However, these two can be viewed more as qualifiers rather than anything else. If the exhibition is too big, or too small or too expensive,the institution physically cannot take the work even if it is thematically a perfect fit.

What are the useful take aways from this? If you’re looking for a museum partner for an exhibition, do not bulk email museums the same email and proposal.Take your time and do your research, read up about the institution, their programming, and their surrounding areas.

If you have the bandwidth, it is always good to offer the option to customise the show and find a spin that will make it more connected to the permanent connection and/or appealing for a local audience.

Finding 2 - What catches your eye in an unsolicited proposal?

One of the questions we started asking museums is ‘If an unsolicited exhibition proposal lands on your desk or in your email, how can it catch your eye?’ The majority of people answer that question with a very simple answer - visuals. So if you are debating whether or not to get a professional photographer and a graphic designer the answer is - yes, invest in your visuals.

Finding 3 - How is the decision actually made?

We found that the decision to bring or not to bring in an exhibition usually happens in two or three stages in most mid-size to large museums in the States.

Stage 1 - initial vetting

The initial vetting happens by the person to whom you sent the proposal. In most cases they will glance at it and, at a glance, decide to bin it or to move forward with the proposal.

 

Stage 2 - committee decision

The majority of museums we spoke with have a committee that comes together to discuss which travelling exhibitions to bring in. It seems that these committee meetings are organised when there are enough proposals to look at and discuss. Most museums will invite a representative from every department to discuss the exhibition. There will be someone from marketing, education, operations, etc in order to get a full view and understanding of the exhibition. In some museums,, the committee meeting is the final stage where the decision is made, in others there is also a third stage.

Stage 3 - the director

The third stage is the final yes or no stage, it happens at the directorial level, sometimes it’s just the museum director, other times it will be the museum director and one or two other senior staff members.

When we asked museums how long it takes to go from seeing a proposal to approving it most museums gave a timeframe of 3 to 6 months, but there were also some extreme answers like ‘up to 2 years’.

Finding 4 - Testimonials

We look at Yelp, Trip Advisor and Google reviews when choosing a restaurant, or a hairdresser. It should come as no surprise that museums want testimonies from previous hosting museums about the exhibition and the producer of the exhibition.

In many cases, museums went as far as to say that a bad testimony or a lack of testimonies is a deal breaker to them bringing in an exhibition.

Lessons learnt:

Know your customers and their audiences

Don't mass mail your proposals to everyone you can think of and hope that someone might need an exhibition; know who the museums are who are likely to bring your show, and more importantly who their audience is.

Invest into marketing material

Let’s face it: exhibitions are expensive, the cheaper ones cost tens of thousands, the expensive ones will set you back hundreds of thousands. Invest in a photographer and a designer to put together the material.  

There is not one ‘decision maker’

Very, very, very few museums have only one decision maker, usually those would be the smaller sized museums. In the vast majority of museums the decision making process involves many people and many departments, so the material you send in has to be able to stand on its own and do justice to the exhibition. It goes without saying but for newbies reading, plan well in advance, and start marketing your show 1 year before you need to have it booked.

Testimonies

Collect testimonies, ask museums that you have worked with to leave reviews and reference letters, and make sure someone is available to take a phone call to provide you with a reference.