Guest Post: The Case For Museum Audience Research

Why do museums offer programs like tours, workshops and talks?

Programs offer visitors the opportunity to engage with art, history or science, and ideally they deepen the relationship to existing audiences, as well as attract new ones. Museums want visitors to hear directly from experts, to discover and discuss new ideas, to find inspiration for their creative endeavors, and even simply to spend an hour with friends and family.

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Visitors enjoying a meditation class at the Cleveland Museum of Art. (Credit: Bethany Corriveau)

Audience research can be a critical part of developing and expanding museum programming. It can be easy to assume that particular audiences are (or are not) being served through programs. It is only when data is collected from program participants that audience needs can be truly understood and these assumptions challenged. Developing a regular process of evaluation allows program planners to ascertain the success of their original benchmarks and then compare findings from future program evaluations to identify any improvements based on changes. Program planners can also determine areas in need of attention. Are new audiences are being reached? Do programs meet institutional and mission goals? What are the factors behind both successful and unsuccessful programs?

It is for these reasons that audience research has become a key priority at the Cleveland Museum of Art. In 2014, our Office of Research and Evaluation embarked on an institution-wide public programs study. Developed in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Policy and Analysis, the study sought to gather data on a host of adult and family programs, as well as define key performance indicators (KPI’s) that could be used to track the program’s overall success.

The valuable visitor insights derived from the study have prompted conversations throughout the organization about the role of public programs, as well as how to potentially expand our reach to a wider audience. While serving as a baseline to measure future evaluations, the study’s findings are informing changes in the organization with both individual programs and the programming schedule as a whole.

The study will undoubtedly lead to a more nuanced, engaging, and satisfying slate of programming at the Cleveland Museum of Art.


Cleveland Museum of Art

Cleveland Museum of Art

Authors Elizabeth Bolander and Bethany Corriveau work at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Elizabeth serves as the Director of Research and Evaluation and manages audience research and prospect research functions. Bethany is an Audience Development Specialist who develops adult public programs for special exhibitions and the permanent collection, including lectures, demonstrations, workshops and events.
Cleveland Museum of Art

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