Worth the effort? New media and the quest for new audiences in Dutch art museums

Jessica Verboom, The Netherlands

From 1996 onwards, many Dutch art museums embraced the possibilities of the Internet and jumped on the bandwagon of the digital revolution. With the arrival of the new millennium, digital technologies have become more sophisticated and objectives have shifted from merely disseminating practical information to the public to digitizing the collection and making ‘friends’ using a plethora of social media. These technical innovations and the overwhelming presence of social media in everyday life have created exciting new possibilities for museums to expand and deepen their relationship with their audiences. Interestingly, these developments have also been contemporaneous with an uncertain political climate in the Netherlands with reductions in state funding and fiercer competition over private funds in the museum field (Frey, 2003; Rentschler, Hede & Ramsey, 2004). The Dutch government increasingly demands its heritage institutions to open up and provide wider access to culture, and take account of these key performance parameters in the subsidy decision. New media have been one of the ways to effectively attract new audiences to the museum and to adapt to a rapidly changing and difficult economic environment (Knell, 2003).

The question we want to address in this paper is whether the application of new media has had some real consequences for the market performance of art museums. Therefore, our research question is: has the introduction of new media expanded the audience base of Dutch art museums? Do these technologies indeed lure more visitors into the galleries (both online and offline), and have they opened up museums to a more culturally diverse audience (cfr. Bakshi & Throsby, 2010)? This question becomes especially relevant when we consider the relatively young group of users on social media (Hargittai & Walejko, 2008) compared to the generally older, more affluent and highly-educated who visit a museum (DiMaggio, 1996). This discrepancy may significantly impede the museum’s task to widen access to their institution and thus to meet their stakeholders’ demands.

This paper will explore the multiple ways in which Dutch art museums innovate in audience reach through the use of new media. We will take a cultural-economic perspective and make use of recent studies, e.g. by Bakshi and Throsby (2010) and Camarero, Garrido and Vicente (2011), to conceptualize the impact of new media platforms on the audience base. Furthermore, several case studies from the Dutch museum field will be presented to illustrate the extent of success art museums have had so far in attracting new audiences, using annual reports and a collection of secondary sources. One example is the online video channel ARTtube (based on ArtBabble), launched in 2009 by Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam and which has lately been expanded to five museums in the Netherlands and Flanders. Their collective objective is to reach a half million visitors per year and the website is bilingual in order to reach an international audience. Promotional activities are all happening online as the museums apply their own expertise in the area of art and education in online videos. This prompts the question: is it worth the effort?