BOSTON — On some Thursday nights at the Seattle Art Museum, you can't miss H.B. Radke and the Swinging Swizzle Sticks. They are the suave guys in tuxedos playing music described by a staffer as "hip lounge style" with echoes of singer Tony Bennett.
Young upscale professionals are dancing to the music in the vaulted lobby designed by renowned architect Robert Venturi. Halfway up the stairway at the mezzanine level, a cafe is bustling with business. The museum's film noir series is about to start as soon as the poetry reading is over.
And in the gallery space, a Leonardo da Vinci exhibition is attracting huge crowds night and day.
Such pleasurable blends of art, food, education, and entertainment at art museums across the United States are now standard marketing procedures. The cross-pollination of these elements - separated in the past to protect art's serious side - has resulted in rising attendance figures.
Today many directors and visitors say that going to a museum is like going to a "fair," an "urban oasis," or an "art mall" or opening a "wonder cabinet."
The number of museums is growing, too. The spectacular, new billion-dollar Getty Center in Los Angeles, the recently opened Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, and museum renovations and expansions in Denver, Phoenix, and Houston are all indicative of booming interest.
Malcolm Rogers, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, says simply, "There is a buzz about museums across the country." Other directors go further, suggesting that art museums may be on the threshold of a golden age of growth and public appreciation.
"Art museums fit the modern lifestyle," says Elizabeth Broun, director of the National Museum of American Art in Washington. "Museums have a variety of offerings for people with different tastes," she says. "The whole family is welcome. You can wear your jeans. You can talk while you visit, eat a snack, or shop in the museum store. You can leave when you want and go home feeling enriched."
Shelving a Stuffy Image, Museums Reach Out to Masses
Memberships are rising. After Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art moved to a new facility, memberships went from 3,500 to 16,000; at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, memberships stood at 45,000 in 1986-87 and have grown to 66,500 this year. Sales in most museum stores are better than ever. Children visiting museums on school days, says Linda Williams at the Seattle Art Museum, go home and tell their parents museums are "cool."
"Let's get people in the door," she says. "The stigma used to be that museums were for the older, more genteel population. We're opening it up to younger people and all people, and taking the intimidation out of the museum experience."
In marketing terms, big art museums have become "destinations," places with multiple offerings to attract visitors and memberships. The success of blockbuster exhibitions - Monet, Picasso, or Czanne - means museums can compete with other venues for the entertainment dollar.
In fact, attendance at all American museums, according to Edward Able, president of the American Association of Museums, is now in excess of 600 million visits a year - up from 389 million visits in 1979. "That's more than the combined attendance at all amateur and professional sports, movies, and performing arts," he says.
But the risk for art museums while they bolster their accessibility, says Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is that "museums may go overboard in short-term gains doing things that are not fundamental to their missions."
Even as the Met enjoyed record attendance of nearly 5 million visits in 1997 (for comparison, attendance at New York's Yankee Stadium last year was 2.6 million), Mr. de Montebello says, "The challenge of the future is the equilibrium between making the museum experience as agreeable as possible without stifling or overwhelming the work of art."
He cites the hugely popular Czanne exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1996 as a "blockbuster exhibit that was used as an audience development tool." He says, "This is fine as long as all [the amenities] don't detract from the serious and serene museum experience."
Because of the Czanne exhibition, membership at the Philadelphia museum jumped from 30,000 to 48,000. Attendance reached 777,810 for the exhibition, a record at the museum. (For comparison, the Sony-Blockbuster Music Entertainment Centre in nearby Camden, N.J., drew 450,000 patrons last year for summer concerts in its amphitheater.)
"We pulled out all the stops," says Laura Coogan, a museum spokeswoman. "An economic study indicated that the exhibition had a $122.5 million impact on the city."
Once inside a museum, many of today's visitors, conditioned by the rapid-fire images of TV and movies, have short attention spans. Research done by the Metropolitan Museum of Art discovered that the median viewing time of a work of art is about 30 seconds, with some people looking as few as five seconds.
"I think there is almost a consumption mentality in this," says Jeff Smith, head of research and evaluation for the Met. "They can say, 'Yeah, I saw this work of art.' But it may be that a painting or sculpture is not the appropriate unit of comparison to six hours of reading a book or two hours at an opera. It's the total museum visit that is important."
Still, some museums are turning to theatrical set designers to mount exhibitions with a little more voltage. "We do use outside designers sometimes who give a new spin to things because I think we should have a varied approach," says Mr. Rogers of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. "We did an exhibit of painter John Singleton Copley [in 1996] and integrated period wallpaper and wall coverings. And we did a magical, theatrical exhibit of 16th- and 17th-century Chinese furniture."
At the Met, de Montebello is more cautionary. "If you hire set designers, the curators have to have the final word," he says. "If not, I think the curator or director has lost faith in the power of the work to move people as it should, and therefore it needs to be gussied up for audiences they feel just aren't serious enough."
Most museum directors aren't neglecting serious audiences or their roles as protectors of past art treasures. But attracting new audiences, they insist, means a wider spectrum of strategies in order to survive.
"We've abolished the fee for children up to 17," says Rogers, "and increased events for them. Part of the effort is to let people know the museum is always worth dropping by. Our programming for young adults, on the first Friday night of the month, started over a year ago with 300 people. The last one drew over 1,400."
But when younger crowds at museums stop dancing on Friday nights, will they look at the art then or come back later? "This is the challenge," says Brent Wilson, head of the Art Education program at the School of Visual Arts at Penn State University. "How do museums help the population that is becoming more and more used to the moving image - to deal with the still image, to stand still long enough for the artwork to resonate? The viewer has to do the work and the digging. This is the challenge."