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September 20, 2021 FOCUS: Meetings & Venues

Hartford area museums pivot to digital, hybrid experiences, new business models

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED The New Britain Museum of American Art now offers a virtual tour (shown above) of its galleries.

When Lisa Lappe started in her role as marketing director for the New Britain Museum of American Art, she knew she would need to learn about the programs, exhibitions, and history of the first museum in the country dedicated to U.S. art.

However, she never expected to need to learn how to help the 118-year-old institution craft a new business model on the fly by building its digital and virtual engagements amid a global pandemic.

“I started as the museum was closing [in the early days] of the pandemic in March 2020 and witnessed firsthand how quickly the museum had to pivot from serving people on the grounds to the realm of digital content delivery,” Lappe said.

Lisa Lappe

It was a reality that museums across the globe had to navigate amid temporary closures initially and the dual challenge of lower revenue from limited capacity requirements and the increased cost of implementing safety measures.

The overall result for many museums — even as activity and in-person visitors picked up as vaccination levels climbed this past spring — has been scaled back days of operation and staff cuts.

According to survey data taken in Oct. 2020 from the American Alliance of Museums, on average, museums expected to lose the equivalent of 35% of their revenue in 2020.

To offset that, respondents indicated cuts to frontline staff (68%), education (40%), security/maintenance (29%) and collections staff (26%) would be required.

Many local museums have also been kept afloat with the help of federal government programs, like the Paycheck Protection Program.

For example, the New Britain Museum received $331,000 in PPP funding, which was used to pay employee salaries, while Hartford’s Mark Twain House & Museum received almost $600,000 from the federal program.

Mark Twain House Executive Director Pieter Roos says the pandemic had a dramatic impact on his organization, which has historically relied heavily on earned income from ticket and gift shop retail sales that account for more than 60% of operating revenue.

Rental income from about 70 annual events – from weddings to corporate functions – also halted.

“This museum has never been closed for more than a day at a time in its nearly 40 years of existence and we’re normally closed only a few days of the year; we were closed for the better part of a year,” Roos explained.

In the process, he says, his organization has lost more than $1 million in revenue since the pandemic hit causing a couple of layoffs and staff furlough days to mitigate the impact.

“We received [two] PPP grants, they were used entirely for salaries,” Roos said. “It ... paid only a portion of our salaries for the time that we were closed. Nevertheless, without it we would have been in serious straits. Both the timing and the amounts of the PPP were crucial to our survival.”

Digital expansion

In addition to federal grant funding, Roos led the expansion and enhancement of the Mark Twain House’s digital footprint and virtual experiences, including programs like virtual author talks, which have increased both in frequency and quality driven by the convenience of virtual formats.

“Virtual programming has definitely been our silver lining [in this pandemic],” Roos said. “Some authors would have been difficult or impossible for us to get in the past, but now all they have to do is go to their living room and they’re being broadcast to our audience.”

Since the pandemic hit, the Mark Twain House has grown from hosting two or three live virtual programs a month to 10 to 12 a month. Speakers have included novelists Steven Baldacci and Jodi Picoult and NPR’s Steve Inskeep.

More than 25,000 people have participated in these programs over the past year and a half, Roos estimates, and that’s led to increased donations.

“We’re becoming increasingly more relevant to [donors] and are seeing our membership grow,” he said.

Lappe said she has seen the same behavior from her museum’s donors, too. Not only, she says, has the New Britain Museum retained most of its members, but donation amounts have also increased.

“It was about supporting the mission of the museum,” she said.

Over the past year — driven by a four-month closure, followed by capacity constraints upon reopening in July 2020 — in-person visitors dropped by half from roughly 80,000 to 40,000 visits.

That’s meant adding new features like enhanced 3D virtual tours and creating more hybrid events that enable both in-person and virtual participation to accommodate engagement preference for visitors.

Lappe says the virtual expansion has also helped to grow the geographic reach of the museum from largely regional to global.

“Some of the events we’ve presented this past year have attracted people from [as far away] as Greece, Russia and Australia,” Lappe said.

And she thinks in the long-run that’ll help drive more in-person visitors as well.

“I think someone who is exposed to our content digitally is much more likely to want to come see it on-site,” she says. “Nothing compares to the on-site experience.”

But even on-site experiences are evolving through the integration of technology.

Michael Dudich

Michael Dudich, deputy director of operations and CFO for the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, which will be adding Thursdays to its current Friday-through-Sunday schedule for in-person visits starting Oct. 1, points to enhancements to the organization’s mobile app as proof of the “new normal.”

“We’ve put a lot of work into improving how visitors can use their phone to interact with the museum and use it for tours,” he said.

For instance, the Wadsworth’s web-based mobile guide now provides additional details about exhibits that can be used at home or while in the museum.

While traditionally many museums relied on website and mobile technologies to share information about on-site events and experiences, in a post-pandemic world, there is general consensus in the Hartford region that online platforms will continue to play a larger role in engagement and outreach.

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