The ROI of Gallery Talks

When I worked in Public Programs at the museum, many years ago, I was responsible for a weekly series of talks that took place in the galleries. Curators, artists, educators, and other experts would give a 30–45 min. talk in front of their subject or subjects. It was chance for the local community to experience the art directly while learning more about the culture, artist, time period, medium, or whatever facet the speaker chose.

The budget for the weekly series was limited, but I could afford to pay an honorarium for the occasional local professor, guest curator, or artist. Attendance varied; a core group of about 10 came almost every week, popular topics/personalities could draw as many as 50 or more. While we centered the programming around special exhibitions, gallery talks were also one of the few opportunities to dive deep into the permanent collection. Anything currently on display was fair game as a topic. Because it was an encyclopedic collection the gallery talk schedule covered everything from textiles to video installations to heroic paintings to lithographs and everything in between, every culture, every media, every time period. I learned every inch of the city-block sized museum, listening to the best scholars, curators, and artists talk about what they love. The stories came alive through their words and we were right there with the art.

When I couldn’t get the big names, I relied on the staff and interns, pitching it as an opportunity to practice their speaking skills. The core audience of career volunteers, docents, retired patrons, and other staff members were very forgiving if a talk wasn’t completely polished or if the speaker’s nerves were too evident. Everyone understood it was challenging to program 52 weeks a year, but they would mark their calendar for their next favorite speaker.

We took attendance with a counter you clicked in your hand, same as the gallery attendants used. It was a small round metal device that fit perfectly in the hand, with a single lever and a window to view the tape wheel with the number on it — very satisfying to click. The numbers were recorded on a piece of paper, then added to a spreadsheet later. My boss would later crunch the numbers and calculate the ROI of our programs each month. Compared to the free jazz, the sketching program, or free movies, the gallery talks did not fare well. Large community programs celebrating cultural holidays or performances in the galleries could draw in hundreds of people. Evening programs that experimented with local music and artist demonstrations drew in even more and brought a fresh excitement to the museum. But, the more successful we were with alternative programming, the more glaring the return on investment for the gallery talks was. We had ways of talking about this, referring to levels of engagement from awareness to engaged to committed, but the program numbers weren’t weighted. Awareness attendees at a large cultural festival or concert were the same as an intimate gallery talk of ten crowded around a single drawing.

I don’t remember the formula because I wasn’t responsible for calculating it, but I remember the impact, the push towards the popular when setting the programming. I understood why we were asked to appeal to the broadest audience, what it meant to the health of the museum, but I also saw the value of the program as it was. What is the price of a single encounter, a moment of transcendence, a flash of clarity? Afterwards, my head full and buzzy with ideas, I would walk through the galleries, past old friends in their cases, after picking up the gallery stools, then rush downstairs to take the speaker to lunch and continue the talk.

Writer, researcher, observer