2019’s Best Museum Marketing Campaigns

Neesha Kanaga

December 26, 2019

Name three museums off the top of your head. Go on.

If your list included either the Louvre, Met, MoMA, or Tate Modern, you’re not alone. These institutions have successfully seared their unique brand image into our cultural consciousness. How? By clever use of logos, design, and some of the best museum marketing campaigns that have cemented their space in the industry.

World-famous museums

While most people don’t like to think of museums as an industry, that’s exactly what they are. The museums industry is estimated to be worth $47.9 billion (in 2017) and accounted for 36.7% of the global arts market. It didn’t get this way simply by hanging up some paintings and calling it a day. Marketing has been involved since the very beginning.

In recent times, museum advertising campaigns have evolved quite a bit. From creative and innovative digital marketing for museums to progressive ideas that cast a critical eye on the curation process itself, 21st-century museums are a place where cultures meet and make meaning like never before.

This is a great time for marketers in the Museums Industry. With so many tools at their disposal and an interconnected audience who are also culturally curious, what are some top museum marketing campaigns over the past year?

1. Terminology: Marketing for a cross-cultural audience

The Netherlands has always used the term ‘The Golden Age’  (Gouden Eeuw) to describe a period spanning the 17th century when military and trading power was at an all-time high. The issue with the Golden Age? It aged like milk. Amsterdam Museum’s curator, Tom van der Molen, lays it out pretty well:

“The Golden Age occupies an important place in Western historiography that is strongly linked to national pride. But positive associations with the term such as prosperity, peace, opulence, and innocence do not cover the charge of historical reality in this period. The term ignores the many negative sides of the 17th century such as poverty, war, forced labor, and human trafficking.”

In a country so defined by its historic richness, the removal of the term ‘The Golden Age’ from museums is still met with controversy. However, many art venues have followed through on the decision to drop the Golden Age. In 2019, the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam Museum, and Willet-Holthuysen Museum, among others, aligned themselves with progressive and inclusive institutions that want to partake in conversations about the present by not putting the past on a pedestal.

The Golden Coach in the Netherlands
The Golden Coach (Gouden Koets) owned and used by the Dutch royal family.

While there are reasons to do this that aren’t specifically related to marketing, it can also be a proactive strategy that’s future-focused. With such unconventional actions, not only do these institutions become newsworthy, but they’re inadvertently marketing their museum as a decolonized space for dialogue concerning the globalized world.

2. Leonardo da Vinci: Louvre’s blockbuster exhibition

To celebrate the quincentenary of Leonardo Da Vinci’s death, the Louvre Museum in Paris swept the summer crowds off their feet in their most ambitious exhibition yet: a whole lot of Da Vinci’s works in one place. More than 160 Renaissance-era paintings and drawings drew more than half a million visitors to this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition, over four months.

Leonardo Da Vinci sketches

It was one of the most blockbuster art exhibitions of 2019, and we would expect nothing less from the Louvre. After all, they have some of the best museum marketing campaigns on the planet. The hype was built before the exhibition, it was ticketed with timed entry, and media outlets were writing about it long before opening week, even comparing it to the Louvre’s 2018 collaboration with Beyoncé and Jay-Z which put the museum on the map among young visitors. While the exact numbers from this year’s museum marketing campaign by the Louvre aren’t out, it certainly raised the bar by returning to the museum’s Renaissance roots.

3. Reinvent Yourself: Be recognized through simplicity

The MoMA, The Met, the V&A – these museums don’t even need to be addressed by their full names to be recognized. Their initials are enough to conjure up notions of what they represent in the domain of art and culture.

Granted, a lot of this is credited to the history and reputation of the museum, plus successful museum advertising campaigns. But, even lesser-known institutions have bravely departed from the conventions of traditional museums and opted to be recognized through simple and symbolic signifiers.

Rebranding concept for Munch Museum in Oslo
By Kristina Henrichsen for Munchmuseet

Throughout the year, an unassuming museum in Norway was quietly at work, waiting to make its mark in the glitzy art world. The Munch Museum founded in 1963 in Bjørvika, Oslo, is set to re-open in 2020 with an entirely new brand identity. The rebranding concept is based around the ‘ripple effect’, which aims to encapsulate how Edvard Munch, a lone artist from a cold country tucked away in the Northern Hemisphere, shook up the art world with his catalytic pieces. The logo plays off a vectorized interpretation of a ripple and features a bold, clean typeface. The process of rebranding itself was art applied with function, and creates a museum that seeks to be visited amidst a wider competitive landscape.

4. Art Basel Miami Beach: Be provocative

The star of Art Basel 2019 was undeniably a banana duct-taped to the wall. The provocative, postmodern piece called Comedian (2019) is the brainchild of Maurizio Cattelan and was priced between $120,000 and $150,000.

It’s a banana. Duct-taped to a wall.

Banana duct taped to the wall

The artwork became a global phenomenon and big brands attempted to feed off the hype by producing their own takes on the artwork. From McDonald’s to Bobbi Brown, and even the New York Mets – Instagram and Twitter feeds were flooded with images of consumer products taped against walls. In our hyperconnected world, only the most bananas ideas can go viral. And viral, it went.

Until someone ate it.

Another artist tore the banana off the wall and casually consumed it in a performance piece titled Hungry Artist (2019). It was captured and shared on his Instagram. The act made #artbasel2019 trend even further on social media which led to an unintentional viral marketing campaign for the event. And, what about the banana, you ask?

Of the ill-fated banana, art dealer Emmanuel Perrotin said:

“Let’s find another banana, because he didn’t eat the banana, it’s a banana.”

From an artistic standpoint, when you peel back the layers of Cattelan’s work, we come to see the artwork for what it really is: A black hole that accumulates meaning through social processes. While this isn’t exactly an example of an art museum advertising in the conventional sense, the Art Basel banana probably outdid some of the best museum marketing campaigns of 2019.

Speaking of edible art…

5. The Whitney: Experiential exhibitions

Taking a cue from the notoriously nutritious food at Art Basel, the Whitney is jumping on the edible art wagon in their upcoming exhibition titled fruits, vegetables; fruits and vegetable salad. Visitors are invited to carve up and consume ‘nature’s impeccable sculptures’ (fruits and veggies) in an in-museum salad-making session. The residual hype from Art Basel Banana lends this exhibition some steam and is a prime example of taking advantage of viral trends as digital marketing for museums.

Fruit salad

The exhibition is part of a string of novel exhibitions curated by the museum following the widely successful Whitney Biennial 2019, which charted the latest developments in American art. It encompassed painting, sculpture, installation, film and video, photography, performance, and sound, as well as intangible forms.

The Whitney, already a notable institution, went through several rebrandings over the past decade. Keeping in mind the museum’s recent controversy, the biennial was a chance for the museum to create distance between its questionable board member fiasco, and they did so by taking a strong socio-political stand in their 2019 installation of the event. It afforded the Whitney the opportunity to expand its identity into the realm of young and hyper-aware Americans.

This year’s collection knocked it out of the ballpark. It was diverse, grotesque, and consisted of multiracial, young, and politically charged artists. The Whitney as an institution of inclusivity was effortlessly weaved into the minds of museumgoers – a far cry from where they found themselves last year.

The Whitney Museum
The Whitney Biennial 2019

For more tips on the best museum marketing campaigns and industry best practices, check out these posts that are catered to help your venue grow. If you want exciting ideas on how to market your museum or attraction to young people, don’t miss our comprehensive guide on how to attract millennials to museums.

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