(image Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

In a response to an earlier article regarding the reported general decline in the number of visitors to art museums, the National Center for Arts Research (NCAR) responded with a comment that intriguingly complicates this situation. They wrote:

In our Edition 3 Report, we found Art Museums had the highest community engagement, whether or not virtual participation was taken into account. They engage about half of their total touch points in-person and half virtually. In absolute terms, compared to other sectors they have the highest average number of touch points, both in-person and total.

The NCAR is an organization created in 2012 by the Meadows School of the Arts and the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University. Jennifer Armstrong, their associate director, conveyed their aims to me. She says that NCAR seeks “to act as a catalyst for the transformation and sustainability of the national arts and cultural community.” They affirm that with this goal in mind they look to provide understanding of arts attendance and patronage; how management, audience attendance, and patronage affect each other; and the general fiscal trends and stability of the industry. In developing their Edition 3 report, published in December 2015 with data collected from 3,115 organizations during 2010–2013, they relied on several data sources. Among these sources are DataArts’ Cultural Data Profile (CDP), Theatre Communications Group’s annual fiscal and attendance survey, the Census Bureau, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

SMU Meadows School of the Arts (photo by Brian Hwu, courtesy SMU)

Their Edition 3 report concludes that although in real numbers audiences may be declining, art museums are engaging people in more ways than in-person visiting. They claim to create a more holistic view of engagement by looking at how art museums interact with members of their communities in terms of participating in digitally transmitted programs, volunteering, using the museum as a classroom, donating objects, and employing staffs. The report also breaks down “in-person” touch points which excludes virtual engagement with digital programming. Armstrong states that they do count an aggregate of touch points per organization, realizing that some people will have only one point of contact, that is, touch point, and others will have many (for example being a visitor, donor, and volunteer).

This methodology does strike me as more useful in determining the cultural reach and significance of arts organizations than merely counting visitors, because on the face of it, a museum can be meaningful to me in the other ways stated above — and perhaps in particular for primary- and secondary-school-age children who have grown up with electronic devices as interfaces for experience. In fact, according to NCAR, art museums engage about half of their total touch points in-person and half virtually. Armstrong relates that “virtual attendance” statistics arrive via organizations reporting to the CDP and include attendance facilitated through media, such as viewers, listeners, readers, and online attendees to online performances or events. This then comports with industry wide efforts to digitize more resources for visitors and expand the menu of media choices within art museums.

At the same time, it is crucial to note that the data given by NCAR only indicates frequency, that is, the number of touch points, but this data does not indicate the duration, depth or quality of engagement. Indeed, this is why organizations such as the Visitor Studies Group and Visitor Studies Association exist: to provide an apparatus and forum for scholarly research on what visitors experience in a museum or similar venue, and how this experience can be broadened, deepened, and replicated. The idea of touch points is an innovative way of thinking about how museums impact our lives, even when we are not visiting them.

And then, in the final analysis is the crucial question pertaining to the value of virtual attendance when considered in comparison with in-person visiting. I have long argued and continue to contend that one of the key functions of the public museum is to make private experience available to public appraisal and consideration. The space of the civic is precisely the space constituted by museums (and similar institutions) that can bring publics together to generate useful friction: bumping up against ideas and encounters that can abrade away our intellectual certainty, making it possible to be receptive to new knowledge. The world of virtual, electronic exploration tends to consist of insular, solipsistic encounters that do not equip us to live in a world full of other people. If the museum is to survive, I hold that it has to find ways to bring people together, even if these ways sometimes yield to discomfort and difficult conversations. Engagement needs to be thought of as opportunities for growth.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...