Museum of Modern Art: Untitled Work

By Anna Maria Virzi Print this article Print

A newly reopened showcase of contemporary art in New York uses behind-the-scenes technology to enhance the experiences of visitors, members and donors.

Don't ask chief information officer Steve Peltzman about the Roy Lichtenstein pop art painting, The Dance, in the Museum of Modern Art's new 12,400-square-foot lobby in Midtown Manhattan.

Ask the CIO of the recently reopened museum, known as MoMA, instead about the nine 46-inch LCD screens on a white wall behind a gray granite ticket desk directly across from Lichtenstein's bold yellow, black, white and dark-red oil painting.

The primary purpose of the screens: to display ticket prices and museum hours. View the PDF -- Turn off pop-up blockers!

But they also dance. The displays take images from the museum's 150,000-piece collection, such as the signature Van Gogh work The Starry Night, stretch them and then compress them into multicolored, bar-code-like stripes that expand and contract to the beat of a muted symphony. The idea: Make even the screens showing ticket information a work of modern art. "We didn't want it to look like Times Square," Peltzman says.

The screens also flash information about exhibitions, lectures, merchandise promotions and restaurants, making them both the artistic and business embodiment of the dozen technology projects that Peltzman and a 48-person staff, with assistance from IBM, have undertaken as part of the two-year, $825 million project to revitalize the museum for the 21st century.

The projects, including a custom-built contact management application and point-of-sale software, are intended to improve the collection and integration of information about visitors—from one-time museum-goers, to longtime members or donors, to individuals who attend lectures, films or classes, as well as MoMA Store shoppers. As a result, individuals who walk into the museum or one of its stores can sign up for membership and get a permanent card immediately. Or, museum staff can instantly determine whether a shopper in a museum store qualifies for either a 10% or 20% discount.

These technology initiatives, along with the screens, are designed to enhance a person's experience with the museum. Yet, they hold an even bigger promise for MoMA and its relationships with its U.S. and international audiences. Eventually, the museum will be able to build on these small yet deliberate measures to improve its ability to reach out to even more visitors and inspire them to become members, volunteers, and the lifeline of all museums—benefactors.

A museum can use technology to identify "heavy users," says Philip Kotler, a professor of international marketing at Northwestern University and co-author of the book Museum Strategy and Marketing. "That person is likely to give money during fund drives and volunteer services, if asked, and also be helpful in spreading word-of-mouth about new museum exhibits and causes."

The marketing of MoMA begins with messages on the lobby's screens to promote a popular event or a sale at a museum shop, tying visitors more closely to the creative organism that is a modern art museum. Future plans include enabling development staff—those responsible for fund-raising—to easily extract information from membership or other databases to generate leads for donations.

That appears to be critical as MoMA reopens its doors and tries to justify—and recoup—the price of its new perch. Attendance at the museum took a nosedive in the 2 1/2 years it vacated Manhattan for temporary digs in Queens. The number of visitors dropped from 1.8 million in the year ended June 1999 to 617,000 in the year ended June 2003, according to annual reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service. Income from contributions, gifts and grants went from $122.9 million in the year ended June 2002 to $65.3 million in 2003, IRS records show.

Know Thy Customer

While technology may not be able to identify the next Matisse who passes through MoMA's doors, it may help discover the next big benefactor, starting with the museum's membership base.

When someone becomes a member or donor, MoMA collects basic information in an IBM DB2 database running on an iSeries server: name, street address, city, state, ZIP code, phone number and e-mail address. Unless an individual joins the museum in this way, he is an anonymous visitor.

With names and addresses, a museum like MoMA can get a better handle on where potential members and benefactors live, according to Kotler. If you know which neighborhoods contain a high proportion of members or donors, you can direct messages to those neighborhoods and expect better responses than if the solicitations were sent to neighborhoods selected at random. "Birds of a feather flock together," Kotler says. "Where a person lives—their address—implies a lot about education and income."

MoMA takes its list of members and matches it against a roster of people who have attended special events. Each list is kept in a separate IBM DB2 database; the names of some individuals are in both. Previously, the museum ended up sending duplicate mailings, wasting paper and postage and potentially annoying its audience. "It's one thing to annoy someone who is paying $70 [for membership]," Peltzman points out. "It's another thing to annoy someone [who] is donating $70,000."

To end that, Bob Rocco, the museum's director of applications and development, and his team built a contact-management application that pulls information from both membership and event databases to get a single view of each person. That application also notes whether a person is a donor and how much he has given.

Cleaning Up

While MoMA is unifying information about members and other visitors, it must make sure the data is accurate.

Peltzman points to the processing of membership applications. In the past, when someone walked into MoMA and applied for membership, a volunteer would take the person's name, address and payment information and type it into a dumb terminal, line by line. Every letter and number.

If the volunteer typed in inaccurate information, such as the wrong ZIP code, the error would get stuck in the membership database. Now, a database of addresses from the U.S. Postal Service has been adapted for MoMA's use by WorksRight Software of Madison, Miss., and installed on a set of IBM iSeries servers. If a ZIP code is not recognized when the address of a new member is typed in, the software will correct the code as well as any common misspellings in the address.

The old terminals lacked the ability to display graphics. In the new system, MoMA membership volunteers use personal laptops with the familiar drop-down menus of the Windows operating system. Volunteers can reduce transcription errors by clicking on options in those menus, such as a menu to select a person's title (Mr., Ms., etc.); an auto-fill feature generates the correct city and state once a ZIP code is entered.

Correcting addresses before a mailing is sent out saves MoMA "a ton of money," Rocco says. The typical mailing—such as membership statements or invitations to special events—delivered to each of MoMA's 50,000 members costs about $37,500, according to industry estimates. On average, 15% of addresses in any mailing are entered incorrectly, says WorksRight CEO Leon Stewart. That would add up to $5,625 in wasted postage and materials in every MoMA mailing.

Next up, Rocco wants to make it easier for MoMA's fund-raising staff to extract information about past or current donors. Currently, if someone wants names and addresses of donors who gave to the annual fund in 1997 or 1998, a software developer must spend as many as two days writing a program to get that information from a database. Rocco's goal: to build a software application that would enable someone on MoMA's fund-raising staff to extract that information within 30 minutes without involving a software developer.

Personalized Treatment

Ripe for cross-promotion is MoMA merchandise, including books, posters, jewelry and iconic furniture such as the curvy plastic chairs of Charles and Ray Eames. A new point-of-sale application built by Peltzman's group sits on Dell desktops in each of MoMA's five retail stores. The sales system is linked to the membership database, which means that when a member makes a purchase, the permanent card is scanned with a Symbol Technologies handheld wand. The salesperson can then immediately address the member as Mrs. or Ms. Jones and know whether Jones is a longtime member, donor or new addition to the MoMA community. "It will be hard to prove," Peltzman says, "but I think this kind of personalized treatment is going to enhance sales."

Keeping track of members' purchase histories is a new feature in the custom-built sales software that simultaneously serves customers better and has the potential to make the museum a more sophisticated marketer. The retail application, which sees the same fields as those in the membership database, also has a listing of each member's purchases since the museum's reopening. The feature could be useful for a member who, for example, bought a book of Alfred Stieglitz photographs as a Christmas gift and can't remember its title—when he wants to buy the book for his wife in June. The clerk would simply scan the member's card and call up his shopping profile.

In the future, the purchase data might be used to customize promotions, says Kathy Thornton-Bias, the museum's retail general manager. If member Joan Smith has bought two books about sculptor Constantin Brancusi, the store could send her a postcard offering a discount on products featuring early 20th-century artists. "We cannot waste time and money marketing in ways [customers] are not interested in," Thornton-Bias explains.

Beyond the walls of 11 W. 53rd St., MoMA can pitch different electronic newsletters at film-lovers or shoppers. Silverpop Systems software can track how many recipients open an e-mail and click on a promotion. Discount codes can be tracked, if used on the Web site. And coupons can be printed out and used in person at any of MoMA's stores.

Soon, up to 50 museum-goers will be handed Toshiba PocketPCs and encouraged to walk around with them. These "digital guides'' will be loaded with digital video and audio content about the museum and its architecture.

In the future, Peltzman says, the museum will consider allowing visitors to "bookmark" a favorite work of art. Then, at the end of the tour, the visitor would be prompted to log in or register his e-mail address. Later, when logging on at Moma.org, the visitor would find a personalized section of the site with the artwork and related merchandise on display.

"We have lots of different offerings—posters, books, educational materials, exhibitions, lectures," Peltzman gushes. "We want to be able to say, 'If you like A and B, you'll probably like C.'"

With that kind of personalization, a visitor who is moved by Lichtenstein's The Dance would be able to go to MoMA's Web site or a musuem store kiosk, log on and be offered a Lichtenstein DVD or pop art postcards.

Museum of Modern Art

Headquarters: 11 W. 53rd St., New York, NY 10019

Phone: (212) 708-9400

Business: Maintains and displays 150,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings and other modern and contemporary art objects.

Chief Information Officer: Steve Peltzman

Financials for the year ended June 30, 2003: Revenue, $115.14 million; surplus, $11,400. Financials for 2004 not available as of early December.

Challenges: Use technology to help create unified profiles of members and donors; turn museum visitors into members, volunteers and donors.


  • Increase membership to 100,000 by end of June 2005, from 50,000 this past November.

  • Get more than 2 million visitors in the 12 months ending June 2005, from 617,000 in the year ended June 2003.

  • Boost gross receipts from admissions, merchandise and services of $42 million, by 3% a year or more.

    This article was originally published on 2004-12-01
    Executive Editor
    Anna Maria was assistant managing editor Forbes.com. She held the posts of news editor and executive editor at Internet World magazine and was city editor and Washington correspondent for the Connecticut Post, a daily newspaper in Bridgeport. Anna Maria has a B.A. from the University of Rhode Island.
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