April 23, 2014  |  Intern Chronicles
Free-for-All: Shifting Museum Strategies for the Information Age

Each year, the American Law Institute hosts approximately 250 legal scholars and practitioners from around the country for a continuing education conference called Legal Issues in Museum Administration (LIMA). Attendees are in-house counsel, registrars, private practitioners, museum directors, and students. They come together for three intense days to share their experiences working in and with museums, comparing notes and “better” practices from the legal arena. The atmosphere is collegial: presenters share draft agreements, veterans offer advice, and in many ways it feels like a reunion of old friends.

The Philadelphia Convention Center, site of the 2014 LIMA Conference

The Philadelphia Convention Center, site of the 2014 LIMA Conference

As a future law student with a background in the arts, the intersection of art and law is an area of great interest to me. Museums play host to myriad issues of trademark and copyright, charitable giving and cultural repatriation. This year’s LIMA Conference in Philadelphia, cosponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, was my first time thinking hard about many of these enormously complex topics.

Max Anderson, the director of the Dallas Museum of Art, delivered the keynote address on the first day of the conference, and his comments—while not directly addressing any specific legal dilemma—provided a touchstone for many of the later sessions. Anderson presented a recent shift in revenue and membership strategies at the DMA: in January 2013, the museum began offering free general admission and free memberships to all visitors. Admission fees and entry-level memberships had previously formed such a small portion of DMA’s annual revenue (5.2% combined) that Anderson wanted to experiment with converting that sliver of profit into increased visitor engagement and valuable curatorial information.

Dallas Museum of Art. Image courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

Dallas Museum of Art. Image courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

By granting free admission, Anderson has broadened visitor demographics, encouraged return visits, and increased attendance across the board. By offering free memberships, Anderson has traded a relatively small bit of revenue for an enormous amount of information: names and e-mail addresses, but also which exhibitions members enjoy most, where they spend time in the museum, why they return, and what benefits are important to them.

Anderson’s new approach has been wildly popular at the Dallas Museum of Art. In the first year of implementing this new strategy, attendance soared to over 500,000 and nearly 50,000 households became DMA Friends. What legal issues should the museum be paying close attention to as information gathering increases?

"DMA Friends by the Numbers." Courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

“DMA Friends by the Numbers.” Courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

The session that followed, called “Big Brother, Big Data: How Museums Are Collecting, Using and Storing Digital Data,” by Lauryn Guttenplan (Associate General Counsel, Smithsonian Institution) and Leslie Johnston (Chief of Repository Development, The Library of Congress), spoke to one major concern. In order to collect data responsibly, museums have to ensure that they obtain consent to do so. Museums must also store data securely, whether locally or remotely. When it comes to using this data—whether to attract sponsors or inform curatorial work—museums must make sure that all attendance figures, programming preferences, and financial behaviors are entirely anonymous. However, when all of this is done correctly, the gathered information is enormously valuable. It allows the museum to deliver programs and exhibitions that the public wants, with support from appropriate donors and sponsors.

In this case study at the Dallas Museum of Art (and others that arose during the LIMA conference) the most critical element in its success is transparency. As museums continue to evolve in the 21st century, communicating with visitors and donors must be a first priority to maintain a happy legal position. Once a museum establishes that openness and clarity, it can truly experiment in very exciting (and sometimes free!) ways.