This case study describes the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s efforts to attract young adults while staying true to the institution’s mission. Wealthy art patron Isabella Stewart Gardner, who created the museum at the turn of the 20th Century to house her vast art collection, first and foremost wanted visitors to engage directly with the art, which had no labeling for that reason. Making the undertaking even trickier, however, Gardner’s will dictated that the arrangement of the artwork could not be changed, so as to preserve her aesthetic vision. As a result, the museum has a distinctly old-fashioned ambience.

The organization’s senior management allowed a team of young middle managers to plan and run a monthly evening event—“After Hours”—aimed at attracting young adults who would both enjoy themselves and explore the art. Through a series of inventive steps—from hosting games that enabled visitors to explore the artwork to using hip, young volunteers—the team created a program that exceeded expectations. Seventy-three percent of visitors now fall into the target demographic; 93 percent explore the galleries; and the museum has recruited 241 new members.

This report is part of a set of case studies and reports looking at the efforts of arts organizations that received Wallace Excellence Awards to reach new audiences and deepen relationships with current ones.

 Points of Interest

  • Seventy-two percent of visitors ages 18 to 34 said they were “extremely likely to recommend” the Gardener Museum’s After Hours program to a friend—a critical factor for a group that depends on word of mouth as a key source of information about events.
    72% of young adult visitors to @gardnermuseum’s After Hours program “extremely likely to recommend” it. #arts #Boston
  • In 2008–2009, 39 percent of daytime visitors to the Gardner Museum were 18- to 34-years-old compared with 73 percent of attendees at After Hours events.
    39% of daytime visitors to @gardnermuseum in 2008-2009 were 18-34 vs. 73% of attendees at After Hours events. #arts
  • After Hours started slowly and built momentum over time. By combining data from exit surveys and objective research with observations of visitors during events, the Gardner Museum was able to make effective, continual improvements.
    Combining exit survey data, research, observations at After Hours events, @gardnermuseum made continual improvements.