“Give them the Remote”

By - Apr 1st, 2008 02:52 pm
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By Bridget Brave Cerqua
Daniel Keegan doesn’t want to be a casual observer. “Don’t just give me a TV monitor with something playing. Give me the remote. Give me the options, give me the control.”

And he’s not letting you slack off, either. “That’s what [the museum experience] needs to be: visitor options, visitor choice. Give them the remote.
Tell them to direct their own experience.”

His audience-enabling attitude speaks volumes about his vision for the Milwaukee Art Museum. “I’ve always felt that art is really cool,” Keegan says. A Green Bay native, he took the reins as director of the Milwaukee Art Museum in March after more than six years as executive director of the San Jose Museum of Art. Now he wants to introduce that “cool factor” to Milwaukee’s urban population through a stepped-up commitment to a changing audience.

“We’ve all become multi-taskers,” Keegan says. “We’re expecting the experience to be much more multi-dimensional. We have been conditioned by the amazing dynamic energy of the mass media: HDTVs, TiVo, iPods, everything … it definitely changes the way we experience life on a daily basis.”

He references a recent New York Times article detailing the challenges museums face as new, younger, more plugged-in consumers begin to demand a say in their experiences. “Cell phone-ready audio guides are one way to put control into the hands of the visitors,” Keegan says. “Handheld devices such as Blackberries or iPods can offer additional text, video clips and interviews, all at the push of a button.”

“The first thing people ask when they see or hear about a piece of art is ‘What’s the relevance? How does this impact me?’ If the connection isn’t clear, they’re going to move on and not become engaged in the piece.”

Engaging a visitor is one thing, but maintaining engagement is a big hurdle. “We’re the sixteenth largest museum in the country – but that doesn’t necessarily translate into visitors spending quality time with the art.” Keegan says. “What we need to do is figure out a way to slow visitors down, give them access to the information behind each piece, and then find a way to keep them engaged with that work, even after they leave.” The problem is “center tracking,” a phenomenon prevalent in museums across the world: most visitors are not drawn to a particular piece or exhibit butsimply dash through the galleries at a fast pace, roaming the halls without sticking to anything.

Less static, more active

He also recognizes that museums tend to keep static collections even in the midst of dynamic, growing communities. Answering the question of relevance
is difficult for most cultural institutions today, but Keegan believes the way to get people to appreciate art lies in giving them a broader range of access and letting them find what speaks to them.

“What we’re looking for is the Google experience,” he said. “Imagine taking a group of kids into the museum and saying, ‘Okay, what is your
favorite thing in nature?’ They respond ‘Trees!’ and then are able to use these little hand-held guides to look up things related to trees in the museum. Maybe it’s abstract art meant to symbolize a tree, or it’s one of the great Dutch masters paintings of people under a tree, or something related to trees in nature. Give them that ability to instantly engage.”

The use of shiny gizmos to introduce people to established art has been met with skepticism, distaste or flat-out rejection, but it doesn’t faze the new director. “It’s just the kind of society we live in,” Keegan said. “With your home theater, comfortable surroundings, microwave popcorn … you don’t have to leave home. Rather than go somewhere where you have no control, like a theater, you can hunker down at home around your own media and have a more quality experience. We welcome this mentality. We acknowledge it. We accept it. And we think that will be the experience that generations to come will demand. We’re ready.”

200804_interview_keegan2The college set in particular is a highly-courted – and tricky-to-woo – demographic, and Keegan discusses a number of new programs and approaches that will help them relate to the Museum in their own way.

“Where are they? Where do they learn?” he asks. “They’re online. [And] I think we’re moving beyond the MySpace mentality, the individualized online presence where you have to individually invite and allow each person to see your own little individual page. Now people want more of the Facebook approach, where there’s a whole community and multiple ways to build inroads and improve access.”

The museum is currently part of a program that allows users to “hang” their favorite works of art on their Facebook profiles.

“One thing we discount, as an older generation, is that this is a new reality. We discount it by saying, ‘Oh, that’s not the real thing, that’s just online.’ Well, for the younger generation, that is real, and our opportunity exists when, at the end of the day, we can provide this historical link to the human experience through art, and give them instant access to that link in a medium they relate to.”

Art-smart consumers

His ultimate hope is to create informed “consumers” of the arts. “When you come to the museum the first time,” he said, “you race through. The second time you look at the things you enjoyed during the first pass, and experience the new stuff. The third visit,” he smiles, “the third visit is my favorite. You go in and you have this more developed encounter with the art. You have become a smart shopper. You gravitate instantly toward what you like, what you’ve developed a taste for, and you end up leaving with a much more fulfilling experience … That’s what we’re trying to encourage people to do: to find new layers.”

Think you’re ready for the Daniel Keegan Art Museum Experience? It might be time for you to invest in a membership – an easy way to guarantee yourself multiple visits for the best possible value.

“Museum memberships are the best entertainment deal we’ve got going,” Keegan says. “Seventy bucks for a family for a year? And you could go every single day if you wanted to? A single membership is cheaper than two pizzas and a pitcher of beer… and it lasts all year long.”

“The museum belongs to the community,” he says. “And it must be supported by the community for it to continue to work … Milwaukee is exceptional. There are few cities on the planet who would not only build an addition [like the Calatrava], but make a commitment to have it paid off in six years.” Keegan says. “That’s staggering. It’s unbelievable.” VS

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