Here’s what market research reveals about MoMA’s decision to display artwork from artists hailing from the Muslim-majority nations affected by the original travel ban.
Here’s the scene: In early February, The Museum of Modern Art in New York rehung parts of its permanent collection with works by artists from the majority-Muslim nations whose citizens were blocked from entering the United States as a result of the end-of-January travel ban. The action received a lot of press.
Data suggest that high-propensity visitor confidence in cultural organizations is at a low point right now, as it was when MoMA made this highly-visible decision in support of its mission. With some cultural organizations taking stands (e.g. MoMA), some doing what they can to avoid political conversations, and some having the priorities of their board leadership called into question as being at-odds with an organization’s mission, it makes sense that people may be wondering what we stand for – and how committed we really are to the missions that we espouse as our raisons d’être. When folks visit a museum, what are they supporting? Who are they supporting? It is in this prevailing context of low visitor confidence that MoMA prioritized the display of these components of their permanent collection.
Cue: Me. Calling up our IMPACTS founder to tag data on how the market responds to MoMA’s action.
At IMPACTS, we collect a lot of data. The data that I share here on KYOB is mostly nonproprietary data informed by the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study (NAAU) that is constantly in-market and has responses from over 108,000 adults. In addition to the NAAU, IMPACTS tracks audience perceptions and behaviors as they relate to 224 visitor-serving organizations in the US (and several overseas as well). These 224 organizations include museums of all kinds, zoos, aquariums, symphonies, theaters, science centers, botanic gardens, and other visitor-serving organizations. Tracking perceptions of these organizations helps us inform our client organizations, alert us to trends, and spot case studies that are actually effective. One of those 224 organizations is MoMA.
MoMA is not a client organization…but at least one client organization considers MoMA amongst its comparative set and has asked IMPACTS to quantify numerous criteria concerning MoMA (and other organizations) as a means of contextualizing their performance against that of their peers. As far as I know, MoMA is not aware that IMPACTS has been collecting this data (…until now. HI THERE, MoMA!)
(Note: Although I’ve revealed myself as an even deeper industry spy in this post, I will not call out not-awesome practices by specific organizations with IMPACTS data here on KYOB. Our industry desperately needs to discuss its failures in order to evolve. Perhaps we even need a whistleblower. I, friends, am not that person. I’m sharing this data because it’s positive, informative, and may be particularly helpful for the cultural industry during a time when we may need market data most.)
Here’s the data and an analysis of what these findings mean for cultural organizations.
What affect did this action have on the reputation of MoMA?
A very big one. Here are some select metrics for which MoMA experienced a notable change in their recently observed performance. The data are examples of scalar variables that quantify a level of agreement to a statement within a continuum ranging from strong disagreement to strong agreement. These types of metrics inform an organization’s reputational equities, which, in turn, inform the market’s perceptions of latent constructs such as trust, value, authority, etc. These particular data derive from a tracking study that quantifies the perceptions and behaviors of approximately 800 Tri-State area residents per assessment period. For MoMA, baseline reputational equities recently increased big time (“big time” obviously being a sophisticated math term).
This kind of bump is a statistically big deal. I included data that dates back to January 2014 so that the magnitude of this bump can be seen in context. The thing to note is the change that was observed concerning MoMA in 2017. This data does not suggest that MoMA is – or is not – the best or most admired art museum. (I haven’t included that context.) Rather, what’s notable here is the significant bump that screams, “something big just happened – and the market likes it a lot!”
This observed increase in reputational equities correlates with MoMA gaining major attention for its decision to highlight artwork by artists from countries affected by the original travel ban. To be clear: These data do not intend to infer causality between the curatorial decision and reputational outcome. These data simply quantify a positive perceptual shift among the US public concerning MoMA. However, one might reasonably wonder: What else could have taken place in the same duration to cause the greatest increase in reputational equities in the last three years for MoMA? In my time working with IMPACTS and tracking metrics, I’ve not seen anything near a bump this big take place “just ‘cuz.”
MoMA’s reputational equities increased in early 2017 while visitor confidence in cultural organizations on the whole was in a general state of decline. Why does reputation matter? As it turns out, when it comes to motivating onsite visitation, reputation matters a lot. This said, take a look at MoMA’s “intent to visit” metrics below. Intent to visit is a different metric than interest in visitation. Intent means that these folks state an intention to visit MoMA. Interest often conceptually removes true barriers to visitation. (“Yes, if I ever get to New York, I am interested in visiting the Statue of Liberty!”) Intent is a more reliable signal than mere interest of actual attendance. These data indicate the visitation intention of people profiling as high-propensity visitors to visitor-serving organizations (Heads-up: Those are the folks who have the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes that indicate an increased likelihood of attending a cultural organization).
How does this inform other cultural organizations?
Do we know the durability of these increases in reputational equities and intentions to visits? Nope. Indeed, in our fickle, competitive, news cycle-driven world, these attitudes may prove fleeting. (I will keep on eye on it to see how lasting these changes sustain.) However, these data are important because they shine a light on what the market may want and expect from cultural organizations during a time when elements of the market risk divisions on matters of cultural, political, and social opinion.
These data represent the market. They’re not about “only people who already like MoMA” or “only people who are against a travel ban” think of MoMA. Assuming that the increase in reputational equities that MoMA has experienced is (at least in part) due to its recent curatorial decision and attendant press, we could have just as easily observed that perceptions remained consistent – or, even, that people disapproved of MoMA’s position. These data point to a potential conclusion that may make some cultural organizations uncomfortable: Perhaps the market wants us to take a stand. More than that, the data may underscore something more fundamental for cultural organizations: Standing up for your mission matters.
What was important about what MoMA did may not be that it was responsive to a timely matter of broad concern, but that it proved that the organization walks its mission-talk. Parts of the mission statement of The Museum of Modern Art read that “…The Museum of Modern Art recognizes that modern and contemporary art transcend national boundaries and…seeks to create a dialogue between the established and the experimental, the past and the present, in an environment that is responsive to the issues of modern and contemporary art, while being accessible to a public that ranges from scholars to young children.” As I wrote a few weeks ago: Cultural organizations are not political organizations – but they are social organizations – and they exist in the prevailing context of the United States right now regardless of political preference. When we aim to completely avoid the reality of the world in which we live, we please nobody. Worst of all, we risk alienating the very people who support our missions in the first place!
Keep in mind: In the last three years contemplated in the data, several other campaigns, announcements, and programs likely took place for MoMA. This is nowhere near the only thing they’ve actively done to promote their reputation as an admired entity in the last three years! It may not be the bump alone – but also the bump in the context of the last three years – that is deserving of attention. It strikes me as a distinct possibility that the cumulative efforts of MoMA in knowing themselves may have created an institutional preparedness that was prerequisite to seizing on this moment. At a time when many organizations might have divided or stalled or gone silent (even when making a decision around their mission), MoMA moved forward rather loudly and proudly. MoMA’s relatively quick decision likely required a keen internal knowledge of the institution, its priorities, and what it stands for.
I’m not saying that the key for our sector to overcome low visitor confidence is to “get political.” Certainly, being political may prove unnecessarily divisive or inappropriate – and that could potentially result in negative reputational equities. It’s time for some organizations to make their own, appropriate moves to prove that we actually stand for the things that we’ve claimed to value for decades. I’m not talking about curatorial activism or political advocacy – I am talking about being unapologetic for honoring your organizational values and mission. Your mission is the very reason for your existence! It’s incumbent upon cultural organizations to do three things that were a whole heck of a lot easier last year than they seem to be right now: 1) Know yourselves; 2) Know your audiences (or, your own bones); and 3) Remain relevant by connecting the first two items.
I’ll keep reporting back on data as I’m cleared to share it. After all, that’s my mission and that’s what I stand for.