Using evaluation to inform exhibition marketing and programming, and measure impact at The Westmoreland Museum of American Art
For The Westmoreland Museum of American Art, the Border Cantos exhibition was an opportunity to connect with and learn from individuals in the Greensburg, Pennsylvania community. Art Bridges funding enabled The Westmoreland to contract the Center for Audience Research & Evaluation at Crystal Bridges to conduct evaluation spanning from a front-end study in fall 2019 and summative evaluation during summer 2021. Across these two studies The Westmoreland gathered critical insights which guided exhibition interpretation, measured visitor impact, and informed future installations about social issues.
Border Cantos shares the collaboration of photographer Richard Misrach and composer/artist Guillermo Galindo through the sights and sounds of the US/Mexico border. Featuring large-scale images, instruments created from objects found at the border, and an original score for eight of the instruments, Border Cantos provides an immersive experience for the visitor.
Front-end evaluation helps guide a project by providing data during the planning and development phase. The Westmoreland team felt that Border Cantos and content related to the US/Mexico border was a departure from what they typically display, and they were interested in knowing potential exhibition responses from both staff and community members. This overall question guided the evaluation: “How do Westmoreland internal and external stakeholders react to and connect with the images, content, and issues presented in Border Cantos?” Focus groups included museum staff, museum members/patrons, and Latinx individuals living in Greensburg. Each focus group included 1) an exhibition walkthrough using a simulated gallery with 25 images representing all exhibition sections, 2) written reflection prompts to use while viewing the images, 3) facilitated discussion, 4) sound sculpture video, and 5) an activity to solicit final “advice” or recommendations to The Westmoreland. Feedback gathered through this study helped further conversations about the exhibition internally and provided insights into the range of visitor responses. For example, all focus groups discussed how the exhibition showed a side of the border not seen in the news, which was a draw for some and a detraction for others. A major takeaway for The Westmoreland was that it was important to articulate why the exhibition was important and relevant in Greensburg, PA. The museum shared that the evaluation made them feel prepared to market and program this exhibition.
Summative data collection occurred while Border Cantos was on view May 30-September 5, 2021. The Westmoreland learned about visitors’ overall ratings from COVES, an ongoing exit survey measuring visitor experience and demographics. In addition, the external evaluator collected interviews with external exhibition contributors and members of the museum's DEI group. Art Bridges funding supported The Westmoreland’s COVES study as well as the summative interviews specific to Border Cantos. Interviews were conducted via phone or Zoom one week following the participant’s exhibition visit, and interviewees received a $50 Visa gift card for sharing their experience. Ratings from the general audience were positive as visitors rated their experience very highly and viewed the exhibition as unique for The Westmoreland. Interview participants learned new information about the border and felt connected to the migrants’ stories. Overall, The Westmoreland was encouraged to explore social issues in future exhibitions. The museum shared that “the overall positive feedback and engagement of our visitors enabled us to see the role that art can serve in bringing the community together to learn in more depth about a difficult subject. We know that with the right amount of front-end evaluation, community collaboration, exhibition didactics and programming, that we can bring challenging subjects to our community.”
We love that Westmoreland Museum of American Art saw this Evaluation opportunity as a way to learn more about their visitors, prepare for an upcoming Art Bridges-funded traveling exhibition, and investigate how they could present challenging topics to new and longtime visitors in the future.