On Monday, the Dallas Museum of Art Will be Free. Here’s What to Expect, and What it Means for Museums

At a press event this morning, Dallas Museum of Art staff offered a sneak peek of the museum’s new DMA Friends program which launches Monday, January 21, at which point the museum will be free.

That’s right, completely free (well, except for special exhibitions). But what makes the DMA’s new program unique is not free admission, rather it is that the museum is offering what it calls free “membership” to anyone who walks in the doors. Membership may not be the right word; after all, for those who still want to pay to go to DMA, you can become a DMA “partner,” which offers some of the benefits that used to come with membership (free parking, tickets, etc.). The DMA Friends program is basically a credit card-style rewards program: sign up and earn points for participating in museum events and logging time in galleries. Then you can turn those points in for rewards, anything from gift store discounts, free parking, or special event tickets to higher value benefits like private gallery tours, free use of the museum’s Center for Creative Connections for parties, or a trip into the DMA’s underground art storage vaults.

So what does the museum get from this? Well, that’s where things get interesting. Jump.

Some of the museum’s incentives for the new program are clear enough. For one, admission doesn’t actually make much money for the museum (less than 4 percent of revenues), so it makes sense to kill the cost of entry, open the museum up to a broader audience, and offset the loss of revenue with new patronage.

But that’s not all of what the DMA is doing here. Just like your supermarket “rewards” card, the new DMA Friends program is both a way to encourage increased audience participation and to gather information about that audience. Speaking at the roll-out event today, deputy director Robert Stein, the museum’s technological guru, spoke about how the program will create a “history of your connection to the DMA” and identify “what is making a connection and what is not.” In other words, DMA Friends allows the museum to gather more detailed market research about who is at the museum and how they can structure that experience.

In any other industry, this is a no-brainer: businesses want to understand their customers, and they want to cater to customer demand. But a museum is not a typical business. It is a complicated institution that serves a multiplicity of functions: academic, educational, curatorial, entertainment. So what happens when decisions about how and what a museum decides to display is a product of the market information it has gathered from the visitors who are inclined (or incentivized) to turn the museum experience into something like a geocaching scavenger hunt?

After the presentation, I asked director Maxwell Anderson what the new program says about how the DMA understands the nature of a museum. Isn’t looking at art essentially passive, and doesn’t adding additional elements to a gallery change the way visitors experience art? These added layers of media to the museum experience, they can suggest, but can they also distract? They can open up a work or foster new discoveries, but do they also mediate the experience of that discovery, turning, say, an African mask into a checklist item on the way to a free party rental?

“We want to create a conversational quality to museum experience,” Anderson said. “We do not want to dumb it down. We want to elevate it.”

Anderson says the program does suggest a new way of thinking about museums, of trying to move away from the sterile white box. He said his hope is that the interactive nature of the program can create an experience of art that is closer to viewing work in a studio or in a cathedral. That is to say, that the museum as a context for the viewing of art objects, from historical artifacts removed from their original contexts to contemporary works created precisely for that “white cube,” must be more dynamic and flexible than it has been.

But can an iPad or a smart phone plugged into an AmEx-style rewards program really create the experience an artist studio, and is the studio — and not the gallery — a preferable place to see art?

“Now we get into the subject of artistic intent, which is what we are trying to unpack as a museum,” Anderson said.

Anderson suggested a new functionality not yet part of the DMA Rewards program that might be introduced as the program matures. What if visitors could not only receive information about an art work via a wall text card or their phone; what if they could ask questions about the art or to the artist in real time via their phone? It is a compelling idea, to create a conversational experience in the gallery space via technology, even if the suggestion made me think of some complex algorithm digging through a library of literature only to produce a Max Headroom-style reproduction of Jackson Pollock’s head – or perhaps a staff member locked in a cubical with a computer.

Regardless, the suggestion reinforces the idea that the DMA’s program is still very much a work in progress, and its effectiveness, how it shapes the museum’s activity, and the kind of information it can generate about visitors will be interesting to track. For now, what you need to know is that DMA Rewards is a free ticket into the museum. Maybe you’ll actually climb up to the fourth floor to explore the Pre-Columbian collection because of it. Maybe you’ll rack up enough points to earn a DMAPartners account. Or perhaps you are the kind of person who would rather leave your cellphone in the car when at a museum and just be present to the art. I generally prefer the latter experience, just me and an art work, one-on-one, in a quiet gallery – ideally in afterhours without anyone else around.

But what’s this? If I log enough rewards codes into my DMA Rewards account, I could save up for just that: afterhours admission into the museum. Well, maybe it’s time to log in.