Guests attend a Second Thursday event at the McNay Art Museum. The monthly event features free admission with food and beer for purchase. Photo by Tommie Ethington.
Guests attend a Second Thursday event at the McNay Art Museum. The monthly event features free admission with food and beer for purchase. Photo courtesy of the McNay.

Before graduating from Trinity University and going to work at the McNay Art Museum last September, I had only been to San Antonio’s museums a handful of times. Trinity students sometimes get stuck in “the Trinity bubble.” With classes, extracurricular activities, and events on campus, it’s easy to live a full life without ever really experiencing the Alamo City. It takes an incentive to get students off campus – like a $2 margarita or free food.

The one time I visited the San Antonio Museum of Art as a college student, it was for my introductory art history class. I learned, upon arrival, that general admission for Trinity students is free. SAMA isn’t alone. Other museums in San Antonio, including the McNay, offer free or discounted admission for local college students.

So, why did it take me so long to get out and enjoy these cultural opportunities? As a student, and now as a young professional, the two things I looked for when deciding how to spend my disposable income and free time were the quality of the event and the price. These two factors must be addressed if museums are to ensure their future artistic and financial viability.

Guests sit on the lawn at the McNay Art Museum at Second Thursday. Photo by Tommie Ethington
Guests sit on the lawn at the McNay Art Museum at Second Thursday. Photo courtesy of the McNay.

When I set out to write about the museum experience from a Millennial (loosely defined as those born between the early 1980s and early 2000s) perspective, I did what any self-respecting Millennial would do and went straight to Google. I found that many museums across the country are struggling to attract a new, younger audience. I also consulted my group of Millennial friends, many of whom are active in the arts, work at other museums or cultural institutions in San Antonio, and are artists themselves.

My initial questions were: 1) Do you feel like you know about and/or are interested in the events happening at various museums around town? 2) When it comes to museums, what are you willing to pay for and why?

The overwhelming response was that—until I started working at the McNay and spamming their newsfeeds with information—they hadn’t heard of the many workshops, talks, films, and events happening at the museum. Some of my friends initially heard about events because their parents are members or they had that one “adventurous” friend who had been to an event and told them about it.

A visitor glazes a ceramic pot during a raku firing workshop at the McNay Art museum. Photo by Tommie Ethnigton.
A visitor glazes a ceramic pot during a raku firing workshop at the McNay Art museum. Photo courtesy of the McNay.

Celebrating its one-year anniversary this August, McNay Second Thursdays—a monthly event with free general admission to the museum, live music, food trucks, docent-led tours and beer—is probably the most well-attended of our events when it comes to Millennials. Second Thursdays, as well as similar events around town like ART Party at SAMA, Cocktails and Culture: The Witte Uncorked at the Witte Museum, Blooms and Brews at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, and the Summer Sol Fest at the Briscoe Western Art Museum are meant to make art, museums, and cultural institutions more approachable.

The same goes with the McNay’s annual free College Night and Teen Night programs, SAMA’s Film on the Green series, and the Sunday Jazz events at the Witte. Our hope is that while Millennials may initially come for the beer and live music, they’ll return because they see how much the museum has to offer in terms of our programs, permanent collection, and changing exhibitions.

It’s easy to see why free events like Second Thursdays would attract Millennials, but what about when events cost money? The McNay hosts various parties throughout the year, including our Spring Party and Holiday Brunch, where individual tickets sell for around $75. The events include extensive food options, live entertainment, free admission to the museum, and raffle prizes. All of the proceeds benefit the museum’s education and conservation programs and are key to keeping events like Second Thursdays free, yet I know few Millennials who are willing to pay that price.

Another example: A one year individual membership at the McNay is $50. That’s roughly $6 a month and less than a $1 a day. A regularly priced general admission ticket for an adult is $10. Not counting the occasional exhibition upcharges throughout the year, if you visit the McNay just five times in a year, a membership pays for itself, and that’s not considering the many perks of being a member. With this membership, you receive the aforementioned unlimited free admission (including exhibitions with an upcharge) and invitations to members-only events, such as exhibition previews where there are hors d’oeuvres, an open bar, a chance to meet the artists and the curators, and a sneak peak at the artwork on view. You also receive discounts and priority registration for special concerts, workshops, films and family activities, as well as free admission to annual events like the McNay Print Fair.

In thinking about our memberships, it occurred to me that I often pay $50 during a night out with dinner, drinks, and parking. I’m also willing to fork over money for travel, clothes, home décor, and Spurs or Austin City Limits tickets that come in at well over $75, but why then does that amount seem like so much when it comes to a cultural experience at a museum?

Four teenagers enjoy a video by Stephanie Patton during the McNay Art Museum's Teen Night. Photo by Tommie Ethnigton.
Four teenagers enjoy a video by Stephanie Patton during the McNay Art Museum’s Teen Night. Photo courtesy of the McNay.

One friend explained the perceived risk involved with paying for events at a museum:

“You’re not sure what you’re getting, so there’s more risk in paying $75 for a party. When I go to a restaurant or buy a designer handbag, I know I’m paying for a certain quality and if I don’t get that quality I can send my food back or return the bag. I don’t feel like I can ask for a refund for a party at a museum where the proceeds are going to a good cause.”

Other friends pointed to the tangibility of an object:

“If I invest in a couch for my apartment, I know I’m going to get use out of it and I’ll feel better spending that money if I see it and use it every day. It’s tangible proof of a good investment.”

But couldn’t the same be said for a museum experience where you might grow intellectually and creatively, all while engaging with your community? Doesn’t that experience when you first fell in love with Picasso or gained a lifetime appreciation for contemporary art outlast the IKEA couch, dinner downtown, or Coach handbag?

It seems the real question is how do we get Millennials to see that investing time or money in the arts can be a personally fulfilling experience –that museums are “cool” too?

It starts with asking the right people the right questions and truly listening to their responses. The McNay recently undertook a months-long audience research study and we are now developing a marketing and communications strategic plan based on those results. The study wasn’t specifically targeted at Millennials, but it’s a jumping off point.

In 2013, the Dallas Museum of Art offered to waive admission for any visitor willing to share their personal information (name, email, mailing address). Since the program began, the DMA has registered more than 50,000 “DMA Friends” (free members). Before the program, there were 18,000 paid members. These members were also presented with a points system where scanning their membership card when entering galleries, indicating what works of art they liked, and bringing friends to the museum helped to accrue points that could then be exchanged for free parking or museum store discounts.  Along with increased involvement, the information gained from this opt-in strategy has allowed the DMA to better persuade major donors, foundations and the city to increase their giving to the museum.

“If everybody coming is old, rich, and white, pretty clearly we’re failing as an institution,” Maxwell Anderson, Director of the DMA, said in a recent “Businessweek” article. Anderson says the data he’s collected has helped secure $5 million in new giving, as well as a $450,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to share their approach and technology with other museums.

A band of high schoolers performs at Teen Art Night at the McNay Art Museum. Photo by Tommie Ethington.
A band of high schoolers performs at Teen Art Night at the McNay Art Museum. Photo courtesy of the McNay.

Then, there’s the question as to how to strike a healthy balance between maintaining your reputation as a high art museum and only providing “happy hour”-type experiences. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has a group called the Junior Associates that aims to bring young professionals to the museum. In a New York Times article published in March, group members were quoted as saying that their events resonate because they aren’t “just another happy hour.” In fact, two-thirds of the time is spent learning about the art and engaging with experts, curators, and other people their age who appreciate art.

The Pew Research Center released a report in 2010 identifying Millennial traits. Millennials are supposedly more self-expressive, creative, and collaborative than previous generations, and we’re on track to becoming the most-educated generation in American history. Sounds like the perfect combination needed to create art enthusiasts, right? Unfortunately for traditional museums, Millennials are also leerier of traditional marketing and advertising tactics and demand more transparency when it comes to philanthropic ventures. This means that if you want to reach Millennials, you’re going to have to do things differently. The solution is ever-evolving because Millennials are evolving and so are our tastes and interests, but one thing is for sure: it’s an exciting time to be a Millennial at a museum.

*Featured/top image: Guests attend a Second Thursday event at the McNay Art Museum. The monthly event features free admission with food and beer for purchase. Photo courtesy of the McNay.

Full Disclosure: This piece was commissioned by the McNay Art Museum.


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Originally from Wyoming, Tommie moved to San Antonio to attend Trinity University. She now works at the McNay Art Museum, and does freelance writing in her spare time. In addition to the Rivard Report,...