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What Motivates Young Adults to Visit an Art Museum?

[2008]
An audience research project with an art museum
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA

With the support of a Wallace Excellence Award, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (the Gardner) contracted with RK&A to study its young adult visitors.  The study is part of an initiative to engage young adults between 18 and 34 years and to create a compelling experience at the Gardner that will foster continuing relationships with the Museum.

How did we approach this study?

During the planning phases of the evaluation, the Gardner launched After Hours, a late night event held on the third Thursday of each month.  To provide insight to how we should design the data collection strategy, we attended an event.  We observed that the Gardner was quite successful in attracting young adults and most were in small social groups.  As a result, we determined it was most efficient to collect data during this event rather than over the telephone after the fact, and that we would conduct group interviews rather than one-on-one interviews.  RK&A conducted in-depth interviews with 55 groups of young adult visitors (184 individuals) between 18 and 43 years of age, with a median age of 26.  After the interview, each individual completed a one-page questionnaire to collect demographic information and typical museum visiting habits. 

What did we learn?

Young adult visitors to the Gardner crave an environment that allows them to be social and feel comfortable and relaxed, which is why they enjoy After Hours.  Most notably, young adults talked about their visit to the Gardner in terms of the “atmosphere,” most often describing it as “casual,” “intimate,” and “comfortable,” and many even went so far as to say that in comparison, other art museums feel much more sterile.  They said the comfortable atmosphere made the art seem more accessible, as if they are looking at art in someone’s home. 

Additionally, young adults said they value peer group experiences because they prefer learning and sharing ideas as a group—a finding supported by researchers who study the Millennials, or Generation Y (Howe & Strauss, 2000).  In talking about the works of art, visitors emphasized the importance of the group looking and sharing ideas about the art, specifically for socialization.  In fact, when asked to consider the common ground between what art museums offer and the leisure experiences they value, young adult interviewees most often mentioned stimulation and social environments, and most frequently, in tandem.  Interviewees described the art and the environment as points of departure for conversation and strengthening peer bonds.

What are the implications of the findings?

RK&A recommended that the Gardner continue After Hours and increase efforts to cultivate a young adult audience through events, activities, and programs geared towards group activities.  Art museums interested in building participation of young adults may consider the same, keeping in mind the desire for group dynamics and comfortable settings.  

The full report can be read at www.informalscience.org.

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