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Selfies, Beer, & Wrestling: How 3 Museums Captured The Elusive Young Professional Crowd

Posted by Andrew Littlefield on Feb 1, 2016 10:00:00 AM

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Young Professional Event Ideas | Museums

There’s a creature spoken about in hushed tones by those in the museum and membership-based nonprofit world…

Some say it’s a myth…

Others SWEAR they’ve seen it with their own eyes before…

Still other laugh and claim it’s just an urban legend…

It is...the Young Professional.

Yes, that most elusive and desired of members: Young! Hip! Connected! Disposable income! Professional! Ripe for stewardship that will make them an ardent supporter of your organization for years to come.

Typically, art and history museums draw an older crowd, but many recognize the need to diversify their audience and bring in young professionals. While they may not be major donors (or even members) for several years, building a relationship early on will pay dividends down the road.

To hear some people describe this demographic, you’d think they actually were talking about magical unicorns. And just like those mythical ponies, seeing is believing.

Look no further, you disbelieving museum-workers. Here are some organization who’ve brought in the young professional crowd using some creative events that you’ll want to glean inspiration from.


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Partnering With Locals Breweries for an Intoxicating Exhibition

What do young professionals with discretionary spending capabilities love?

Craft beer, of course.

Ask any beer snob about their favorite craft brewers, and you’re likely to hear the names Smuttynose and Redhook come up frequently. And when two renowned breweries are in your backyard, you’d be wise to build a partnership with them.

Which is exactly what the Strawbery Banke Museum did.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire has a long history of brewing. The curatorial team at Strawbery Banke wanted to highlight this important part of the history of industrial Portsmouth, and created the Tapping Portsmouth exhibit.

This is the kind of creative programming that can bring in a young professional crowd, and educate them about the history of their city at the same time.

“It started with a discussion in our curatorial office office from our collections staff,” says Monique Deforge, Manager of Corporate Relations at Strawbery Banke, “We’re always looking to attract new members and we wanted more young professionals. We want to bring them in while they’re young and have them grow with us.”

The 10-acre living history museum features 30 historic homes, botanical gardens, event space, and other attractions showing off the history of Portsmouth. Tapping Portsmouth allowed the museum to show an important part of the city's history in a unique way.

Besides being a successful, educational exhibit, it also resulted in some highly productive partnerships with several of the highly-regarded breweries in the area.

Seizing an opportunity, Strawbery Banke partnered with breweries like Smuttynose and Red Hook to collaborate on special events, like a History Crawl featuring craft beer sampling, that supported the exhibition that helped expand the museums audience even more.

However, it wasn’t all strawberries and cream (heh...see what I did there?).

Strawbery Banke ran into two issues along the way:

  1. Tickets weren’t selling 3 weeks in advance. They sold 3 days in advance.
  2. The new audience wasn’t snapping up memberships

The first issue was a matter of logistics, but it taught them a valuable lesson. They learned that “pop-up” events would work well with this group, and used that knowledge to guide strategy moving forward.

The second problem was a bit more challenging. But rather than give-up, Strawbery Banke adjusted their goals and expectations. Rather than funnel new visitors directly towards memberships, they focused on just opening lines of communication with their new audience and get them to come back again.

“Once you visit Strawbery Banke, you’ll fall in love with it. All you need is a reason to come out,” says Deforge, “We were able to offer special beers that were only available at this event, which got people in the door and wanting to come back.”

Strawbery Banke plans to keep this audience coming back with more unique events like an exhibit on the history of tattooing in Portsmouth.

Using Social Media To Bring New Life to Old History

Historical societies also face an uphill battle when attracting young audience, especially when they’re located in a city that carried a reputation as a retirement destination.

Boca Raton, a small city in South Florida, was historically known as a resort and retirement type of town. But the quickly growing Florida Atlantic University has rapidly changed the city’s demographics.

For the Boca Raton Historical Society and Museum, attracting a young crowd meant turning them on to the history of Boca Raton using a mixture of social media, retro-trends, and city pride.

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They launched a campaign called “Faces of Boca Raton,” in which they went around to local hotspots with a sign that read “#IamBocaRaton”, and encouraged people to take pictures and tell their story of why they love their city. This was paired with local marketing efforts to draw attention to the Historical Society and the work they do.

“We don’t get a lot of recognition and respect,” says Susan Gillis, the Historical Society’s curator. “Everyone thinks art and science museums when they think of museums, not history. We don’t get much government funding, so we need membership and community support. So we need people to understand the history and heritage of this city and if you live here, you’re a part of that history.”

The Faces of Boca Raton campaign worked so well, members of the community took ownership of hashtag and created their own merchandise.

“We tried to create some #IamBocaRaton t-shirts, but we realized that someone in the community had already gone out and had their own printed! It really took off in an organic way, and we encourage that,” says Gillis.

“I Can’t Believe That Happened!”

What happens when you leave a museum open until the wee-hours of the night, invite in circus performers, Mexican luchador fighters, photo booths, a fully-stocked bar, and essentially turn your gallery space into a club for a night?

Culture Shock.

museum_events_for_young_professionals.pngThe High Museum of Art wanted to shake the notion of art museums as stuffy white galleries where snooty people go to whisper and stare at paintings of shapes. So in a collaborative project with MoMA, they launched the “Culture Shock” events.

Culture Shocks functioned essentially as afterhours launch parties of new exhibitions. But instead of a traditional white and cheese type reception, the team at the High Museum went all out and attempted to create a totally unexpected experience for visitors.

“I wanted people leaving the museum saying ‘I can’t believe that just happened!’” says Erin Dougherty, Head of Public Programs and Community Engagement for the High. “I want people to feel like the missed out if they didn’t go.”

Having attended these events myself, I can tell you that’s exactly how they went down.

Loud music, booze, fashion shows, photo booths, painted ladies working the crowd, and yes, even Mexican luchador wrestlers were all things you might find at a Culture Shock event. And the young professional crowd came out in droves.

Here’s Dougherty again:

“The hot audience, the “unicorn” if you will, is that young professional with expendable income. What do they want to see, what do they want to experience when they come to a museum? It might not be what the traditional museum-goer might want.”

So what makes for an exciting, just-had-to-be-there kind of event like this?

“You’ve got to institutional buy-in. From the top-down, this was embraced,” advises Dougherty. “Our leadership basically told us ‘As you don’t burn the museum down and protect the art, we’re supportive.’ It was treated like an experiment.”

Speaking of experiments, here’s an important reminder: sometimes experiments fail. The High Museum team knew this was a possibility, and they embraced the idea that some aspects of the Culture Shock events might flop.

“For me, to have the permission to fail was freeing but also a little bit terrifying. You had to be not afraid to fail. If we tried something and people didn’t like that, that’s okay, we learned and moved on.”

Dougherty says her team was constantly asking for feedback from participants. Was the timing good? What did they like? What didn’t they like? What do they want to see next time?

Even with the risk of failing, the events were a success, which is really what these types of experiments are all about. To get a result you’ve never had, you need a process you’ve never tried.

“It made people realize that the museum is for everybody and it’s here for them,” Dougherty explains, “It helped show people that we’re not as stuffy as the public thinks we are.”

Topics: millennials donors,, Museums, event fundraising

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