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Museums employing ‘fun’ tour tactics to lure new patrons

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Museums employing ‘fun’ tour tactics to lure new patrons – Entertainment & Life – The Columbus Dispatch


By Elaine GlusacNew York Times News Service

Monday

Jul 23, 2018 at 4:37 AM

On a recent Monday afternoon, Sarah Dunnavant, a 27-year-old actress and guide with the tour company Museum Hack, gathered her group of eight at the entrance of the Art Institute of Chicago, promising to reveal the “salacious, sexy and scary” parts of the museum in an animated two-hour “un-highlights” trip through the venue.

She led the way to American folk-art whirligigs, a fake Caravaggio and the arsenic-laced green paint favored by Vincent van Gogh. She passed out candy to keep spirits from flagging, discussed Beyonce’s references in video and photography to the Yoruba goddess Osun in the African gallery, and photographed the group posing as the characters in Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” in front of the pointillist masterpiece.

‘‘If you were expecting to stroke your chin and consider the brushstrokes of the great masters,’’ she said, stroking her chin and breaking out into laughter, ‘‘this is not that tour.’’

This tour, like a spate of others that are newly redefining museum-going, aims to reinvigorate a tourism staple: the must-see museum. Museum Hack uses humor, pop-cultural references and games to make the trip more fun and less dutiful.

“We’re obsessed with attracting a whole new audience,” said Nick Gray, who founded Museum Hack in 2013.

“Museums aren’t competing with other museums,” he added. “They’re competing with Netflix, Facebook and iPhones.”

It’s not that museums haven’t been innovative on their own in efforts to engage in the age of distraction.

The Neon Museum in Las Vegas, devoted to castoff signage from around the Las Vegas Strip, recently introduced Brilliant, a sound-and-light show that animates the nonfunctioning signs.

The Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio conducts flashlight tours of its galleries periodically throughout the year.

In St. Petersburg, Florida, the Dali Museum offers a virtual reality tour of Salvador Dali’s 1935 painting “Archeological Reminiscence of Millet’s Angelus” that puts viewers in the surrealist landscape, including atop its human-shaped towers.

But third-party tour companies, especially those working in fine-art museums, bring more external filters, from the comedic to the academic. Their tours range from special themes, such as feminism or gay culture, to museum highlights designed for time-pressed or attention-deficit travelers.

“You take a tour like ours to break down what might otherwise be a million-piece collection like at the Louvre or the Met,” said Stephen Oddo, a founder of Take Walks, a walking-tour company operating in New York and San Francisco as well as eight European cities, including London and Rome. “You could go with a guidebook or an article, but that’s very passive. With historic places, it’s always better to get context and richness delivered in person by someone who specializes in it.”

Oddo and his co-founder, Jason Spiehler, met while working in Rome, where Spiehler was guiding tours at the Vatican. Together they founded Walks in Italy in 2010; in other countries the company now goes by Take Walks. The company offers tours such as the Louvre in Paris at closing time, when traffic around the Mona Lisa dies down, and a full-day trip to three sites by architect Antoni Gaudí, two of them museums, in Barcelona, Spain.

“In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a shift from larger-group, checklist-style, in-a-bus itineraries to smaller tours with guides that have a specific knowledge on a subject and can speak to that nuance,” Oddo said of the Take Walks tours, which are designed for 12 to 15 people. (Most museum itineraries run two to four hours and cost $42 to $107; to register, go to takewalks.com.)

Covering more salacious ground, Shady Ladies Tours, which originated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2016, focuses on the courtesans, mistresses and beauties commonly depicted in art ($59 via shadyladiestours.com). The company has since expanded to cover “nasty women,” or women of power from ancient Egypt to American suffragists, and fashion and beauty across cultures, including scarification and nose rings, at the Met and other museums in Boston and Philadelphia ($28 to $54).

“It’s a less leaden way of looking at art,” said Andrew Lear, the founder of Shady Ladies, an art historian and classicist who has taught at New York University.

“We are taught to look at art in an almost disorienting and intimidating way, that art is about distinct styles and theoretical concerns,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a great place to start. People like to know context, and, of course, this is a fun side of context.”

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