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Conference report: Communicating the Museum, Berlin 2016

With the somewhat cryptographic acronym CTM16, the Agenda company organised the Communicating the Museum conference on 12 – 15 July 2016 in Berlin, Germany. As is usual with these conferences, one of their main “raison d'être” – reasons for existing – is the opportunity to inform yourself about the latest developments in a wide ranging of topics – in this case arts communications and fundraising – and to network with like-minded professionals. As such, CTM was able to provide the over 200 participants and 50 speakers from all over the world with plenty of opportunities to do so. All in all, “Communicating the Museum” gave ample food for thought and action to not only museum professionals but other arts institutions as well. 

An entire day was devoted to “Trends in Fundraising” with the major topics headlined Best Practice Training, Embracing the Unexpected, Leading Generative Conversations, How to Survive in the Digital Jungle and Building Dialogue Inside Out. Even though there were speakers from very different institutions having very different collections, visitors and focus, the key learnings from all the presentations and discussions can be summarized as 

  • know the why of the existence of your institution. Which ‘products’ are you selling?
  • know your brand – whom you represent
  • know who your client/ visitor is and speak their language
  • connect through storytelling – reach out and create an emotional link 
  • get him/ her to interact with the organization
  • be authentic, be real, be clear and consistent in your communication
  • integrate the communication of the museum’s message into the daily life of the community
  • What marketing mix is used? 

  • speak the language of your sponsors and understand their aims
  • create long-term partnerships rather than just anonymous sponsorships
  • a good database and strong analysis are key. Understand who your donors are, who is donating what and when 
  • experiencing an artwork in person will still remain the strongest possible draw of a museum
  • making it available to be viewed online is going to generate more interest in wanting to see it “live”
  • don’t be afraid to ask for what you want or need
  • all transactional relationships begin with awareness. 
  • direct contact is continuing to be very effective. Internet is more an informational platform. 


The ever eloquent Thomas Girst, Head of Cultural Engagement at BMW, Germany, gave the first presentation on the Fundraising Day. He spoke of aiming for partnerships rather than sponsorships. Getting funding for projects is becoming more difficult because there is more competition while at the same time museums and companies require fitting partnerships that benefit their visibility and reputation. That’s why Girst promotes to personalise each application, and to adept each contact to the company and its language. For him, transparency is key: Show the sponsor how his money is being spent and what he gets for his investment. 

Javier Pes, Editor
of influential The Art Newspaper UK, continued with emphasizing the importance of making the most of your unique selling point. Understand the museum as a brand; define what it has to offer that the visitor can only get there. It is a truism that people are drawn to visuals more than the written word. Therefore, museums have to be sure their key moving image is short (30 – 60 seconds), concise and has one clear message. People crave authenticity and experience in a museum. It thus should be an exuberant space for art rather than a constrained container. Interactivity, with the visitor as a contributor, is proving very popular. The availability of works online – a virtual gallery – is an excellent way to drive this attendance. There is nothing like seeing an original work and that will always be so. Nonetheless, education and a level of authority are still important. Vistors want to ask questions, not just be shown the answers. Encourage curiosity and make it easy for questions to be asked and answers to be received. Don’t represent nations or grand narratives – represent the individuals, the human experience. Don’t fear emphatic storytelling. 

The Australian Museum has just undergone a major renovation of their premises. Kim McKay, the passionate Director & CEO, and Tehmi Sukhla, Director Marketing, Communications & Development, were strong on generating momentum. Sponsorship and philanthropic funding come from offering an environment people want to fund. Understand the company you’re pitching to and how it can integrate with your institution. After all, sponsorship is friendship. Spend the time and the effort to develop important relationships. In Australian Museum’s case it took over two years to build this relationship with their perfect-fit-partner, Westpac Bank. It is the head of an organisation must drive this change forward. The major investors and the visitors will appreciate it. Demonstrate to the organisation that change is necessary and can be accessible, inviting, exciting. Real face-to-face conversation will kick things off properly and you will get a much better understanding of your partner. 


Bernard Ross, Director
of The Management Centre UK, gave insights from the point of view of behaviour economics on how to overcome the challenges of funding projects. His main points included: be innovative, don’t expect a logical progression because people are not always logical in their thinking and dealing. The basis of good fundraising is to understand philanthropy itself – know how to give money is to know how to get money. Behavioural economics deals with how we think we think– deliberately, logically and explicitly. But actually we instead think emotionally, automatically and implicitly and thus defy logic. We jump to conclusions, we associate, we justify without reason, we like things from our perspective, we value our own input, we see what we want, we unconsciously seek or ignore certain data, we prefer the subtly familiar, we look for meaning even when there is none. These are all factors that we need to be conscious of, even when dealing with fundraising. 

Scott Tennent, Director of Advancement Communications Smithsonian Institution,
USA, spoke about “Beyond please and thank you: leveraging communications for donor relations”. His points included empowering members as influences, arming fundraisers with storytelling values and not being afraid to ask for what you want. Most importantly, always say thank you – even if the answer is no. 


Jill Westgard, Deputy Director for Advancement Yale University Art Gallery
USA spoke about “Connecting with your donors”. Some of her key points were: The Yale University Art Gallery made membership free and turned towards direct, grassroots funding options to generate operating needs. This resulted in an increase from 1200 paid members to 10.000 free members. The resulting campaigns generated more than the entire preceding year of paid memberships. The ‘price’ entailed the members to give personal information: name, address, art and program interests (correlating with curatorial department organisation), life status, connection to the organisation. Based on these information, every campaign has a mission-based theme and involves direct print mail, email, social media, thank you. Thus, you can use a database like this to understand your audience and how to get through to them – the results may be surprising. When donors are not necessarily ready to give online – higher response rates can be achieved with direct mail. Online promotion takes place, but traditional methods get better results. When given the choice between two amounts, more donors chose the higher amount. 


Pascale Bousquet, Account director at Agenda, France, spoke about “Travel bloggers, the new trendsetters.” Why work with bloggers? Their content is timely and quickly produced. They are storytellers who share their experience with their own words and share their emotions. They speak to targeted audiences and share their experience instantly on their social media postings into their Instagram, Facebook, Twitter etc presences. They help develop the organisation’s e-reputation. Choose the bloggers you invite according to your target audience – do your research. Check that their values and tone of voice reflect the values of your organisation.

Rebecca Taylor, Executive VP Fitz & Co., USA spoke about “The art world’s love affair with Instagram.” Instagram is THE social media niche for the art world.
Its over 400 million strong user base is the most rapidly growing among the museum-going demographic (Snapchat is also growing rapidly but among lower age group.). To be successful there, you have to include relevant handle, short and punchy bio, recognisable profile photo/logo and your URL. Then, no matter the platform, content will drive likes, subscriptions, searches and plays. Users want content that informs, educates, solves problems and entertains so be authentic – don’t use low quality or stock photos. Show personality – use emojis, have a sense of humour, and engage actively with your audience. Offer free wifi in the museum and, if possible, mobile phone access in the museum space. Show the museum’s hashtag often and encourage its use.

Making the most of the digital era” was Jesse Ringham’s topic. He is Digital Marketing Manager at the Tate UK. His strategy: Aware → Excite → Launch → Sustain


Digital makes art accessible to everyone. Know your content and how it will be linked to your audience. Make it real! Get involved in the everyday – Tate links its works to weather updates, events, etc. Digital requires us to act and react fast. Know which platform is best for which messages, experiment and mind the analytics. Listen out for what the audience wants. Video engagement is very effective, but be aware of the limited attention span (30 seconds). Live streams are a very cheap way of inviting audiences in, especially behind the scenes. 

Chris Dercon, Director Emeritus Tate Modern
UK, gave the final keynote on “The Museum of Exchange.” The key learnings from his presentation:

  • Question the paradox of public ownership. How do we make our brands both inclusive and exclusive? 
  • How do we define the ownership of cultural property, cultural identity? How do we communicate collections to a public that doesn’t care what we own and what we loan? Are we in turn branding otherness? 

  • How can we communicate the ever expanding museum? How do we com- municate that we want and need to get bigger all the time? 

  • How do we differentiate between a hysterical object and an object which communicates a sense of normalcy?
  • The solution, not the problem: consider the museum as the social condenser, the open space people come to for diverse encounters. 

  • We have to learn to communicate about what we do not want to talk about. 


Some of these insides and ideas might seem simple and logical. But in fact, they are important and often-neglected findings that follow the principle of what goes around, comes around. If you want your communication partners – visitors, users, sponsors, politicians – to take your museum, its issues and needs seriously, you have to take them seriously as well, understand their needs and their language instead of speaking from the museum’s ivory tower.

Author/Source: Author: Zenaida des Aubris is Consultant for International Cultural Events, living in Berlin. Born in Argentina, she has over 25 years experience in management and production of classical music in the United States, Europe and Asia. Email: zda (at) artsmanagement.net
Management Topic: Marketing & Communication
Cultural Area: Museum+Visual Arts
Submitted by editor-in-chief on Oct 24, 2016